The Calgary Journal
The Calgary Journal

Problems may arise with inclusive classrooms, critics say

Olson thumbCherlynn White is one of many Alberta parents who are frustrated with the Calgary public school system.

She fought for years with the Calgary Board of Education (CBE) to get her son, Brayden, tested for a learning disorder. According to White, the CBE refused testing because his needs weren't considered high enough.

"If you're severe [with a learning disability] you get all the support in the world, but if you're mild, you get washed out of the system," White said.

The White family decided to have their son tested outside of the school system by an educational psychologist. Brayden was then diagnosed with expressive language disorder, meaning he understands language better than he is able to communicate it.

EducationParents and teachers are concerned about the prospects of having enough resources to deal with special needs children in the wake of debilitating budget and staff cuts.

Photo: Thomi Olson/Calgary Journal
Even with this diagnosis, White said that Brayden was still refused an aide by the CBE because his needs weren't coded as severe enough. White felt her son would never receive enough attention in the Calgary public system due to what she deemed to be large class sizes and lack of teacher's aides.

In September of last year, White enrolled Brayden in the private Calgary Academy for his Grade 5 year.

Since Brayden's immersion into the private school system, his reading levels have gone from a 3.5 to a 6. White said she feels this is because in the private system there are far more resources and attention for children with special needs.

Alberta Education's response to frustrations with the current education system is the Action on Inclusion, which is slowly starting to filter its way into the public school system.

According to Alberta Education's website, the Action on Inclusion aims to "ensure that each student feels like he or she belongs and receives a quality education no matter his or her ability, disability, language, cultural background, gender or age."

The initiative has been in the works since 2008. In those three years, Alberta Education has consulted with more than 7,000 Albertans on the current education system that is in place throughout most of the province.

Alberta Education hopes to abolish the current system by filtering special needs students into the regular classroom.

According to Alberta Education's website, the goal of an inclusive education system is "to provide all students with the most appropriate learning environments and opportunities for them to best achieve their potential."

"Special education students should have the same treatment as any other student," said Zoe Cooper, spokesperson for Alberta Education. "Inclusion will put an end to dual stream education."

White said she doesn't think the CBE can possibly provide for all families with children who have special needs.

"If you're going to add in more kids with special needs into the classroom, you need to have the money for more aides," she said.

Cooper pointed out that staffing throughout a school is generally a decision that is made at the local school level. It is the school authorities that have the flexibility in how funds are allocated, she said.

Alberta Education has not set a concrete timeline for when inclusion will be in all classrooms. Their main objective at the moment is to help educators understand what they can do to support students in inclusive classrooms.

The provincial government is currently working on a learning coach model that will help teachers enhance their abilities to meet and respond to each student's needs.

According to Alberta Education's website, the plan is that learning coaches are expected to collaborate with teachers so that the diverse needs of students are met — meaning teachers will be expected to teach students of all levels, whether that is a student who is requiring ESL, has special needs, is from a different cultural background or is highly gifted.

One Calgary junior high school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing her job if she spoke negatively about the school district, said that learning coaches are not enough.

In 17 years of teaching, she said she has noticed a steady cut in aide time throughout the Calgary public system. She stated that inclusion will only make it worse and said there has been a significant cut in ESL aides in her school this year.

"Alberta Education wants to create this utopia, but how do you do that in a classroom of 35 kids, one teacher and no aid?" she asked.

She also said she's worried that if problems arise once inclusion is implemented, the fault will fall upon the shoulders of the teachers. The teacher fears that public perception will be that teachers aren't willing to do their jobs. According to her, the reality is that some teachers won't be able to do their jobs due to lack of funds, resources, aides and support.

"I don't feel that you can possibly reach all of the kids," she said. "Some may fall through the cracks."

Alberta Education seems aware that private education is not a reality for all Albertan families. They feel their approach plans to meet the needs of all students; regardless of what system they're in.

"This is about ensuring that everybody receives success, social support, health and a proper education," Cooper said.

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