Inclusive education in Nova Scotia isn’t working, some parents say

Some parents in Nova Scotia say they are pulling their children out of school or considering leaving the province altogether because the province’s inclusive education policies are failing their children.

“It’s not the people that are the problem, it’s the system. The system is broken,” Danielle Kellough said of the public school system. “If a child needs one-on-one help, they need one-on-one help.”

Kellough’s 10-year-old daughter, Anna, has sensory processing disorder. She is easily alarmed by loud noises, is sensitive to bright lights, and can often become anxious or angry for reasons that may not be obvious to others.

Three years ago, her parents expelled her from school because they felt her needs were not being met.

Danielle said the school lacked the resources, teaching assistants and understanding of her daughter’s sensory needs to create a positive learning environment.

She said Anna’s requests for sensory breaks – a chance to leave the classroom for a moment to refocus or calm down – were often ignored because staff were too busy with other students.

A young girl with brown hair poses for a selfie with her mother. Her mother wears thick black glasses and a gray headband.
Danielle Kellough and her daughter Anna. (Danielle Kellough)

“She did so well in school for so long, but it was because of her own coping mechanisms,” said Danielle, now Anna’s full-time teacher and caregiver. “Now she’s so adamant about going back that it causes her serious anxiety to even consider it.”

CBC News spoke with more than 10 parents who pulled their children out of the province’s public school system for similar reasons. Their children have disabilities and they say their schools were not equipped to support them.

The Department of Education previously told Nova Scotia Auditor Kim Adair that the number of full-time positions for teaching assistants and tutors in learning centres has increased significantly since 2016.

But in her June 2024 report on school violenceAdair said teachers are still experiencing “challenges” in implementing the provincial inclusive education policy.

“A recurring theme in our interviews at the schools we visited was the lack of appropriate support for teachers to manage the diverse needs within a typical classroom,” Adair wrote in the report.

Nova Scotia’s Inclusive Education Policy was introduced in September 2020. It has not been revised since then.

A woman sits in front of a microphone, with the Nova Scotia flag visible in the background.
Nova Scotia Auditor General Kim Adair said in a June report that educators are “facing challenges” in implementing the province’s inclusive education policy. (Robert Short/CBC)

When asked about inclusive education in June, Deputy Education Minister Elwin LeRoux said people often misunderstand the policy.

“Our inclusive education policy does not mean that every student must be in every classroom every day or all the time,” he said.

Section 4.2 of the policy states: “Every student, including students with special needs, must receive a full day of instruction every day, with flexibility based on the student’s individual strengths and challenges.”

All students always in class

According to one expert, that is exactly what an inclusive education policy should strive for.

“I think if we give parents the choice to send their child to the school in the neighborhood and it’s completely chaotic there… or if we have a special environment where you can send your child to, then I don’t think we’re giving parents much choice,” said Jacqueline Specht.

She is director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education and professor of education at Western University in London, Ontario.

A woman with short brown hair and glasses smiles in front of a brick wall. There is a sign that says "Western education."
Jacqueline Specht is director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education and professor of education at Western University. (CBC News)

“I think we have failed many parents in that regard.”

LeRoux appeared to suggest that some students could be removed from classrooms, citing “alternative programming” across the province.

“The goal is for every student to thrive. Every student can be successful with enough time, patience and quality education. That doesn’t mean we have to be in the same room all the time,” he said.

Melissa Anderson says she’s lost her patience after trying not only the public school system, but also private schools.

Her 13-year-old son, Carter O’Donnell, is autistic and has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

He received individual support from a teaching assistant at his school, but was separated from the rest of his class.

A young boy wearing black and yellow hockey gear poses with his mother in front of a hockey rink.
Melissa Anderson and her 13-year-old son, Carter O’Donnell. (Melissa Anderson)

“He’s never going to learn how to function in a classroom if you don’t give him that opportunity,” Anderson said.

When Carter gets overstimulated, he can misbehave, Anderson said. She said the school would often call home 20 minutes into the day to ask her to pick him up.

“He’s 13, almost 14, and he might have a 5th grade education level, just from the amount of calls from the school [resulting in him] sent home. He doesn’t learn anything from it. It’s just really horrible,” Anderson said.

Desperate to get her son an education, Anderson moved him to a private school that specializes in students with learning disabilities. But she said the situation there was no better.

After a year at a private school, Anderson was told by a principal that her son could not return in September because his needs were too great and he required a more “specialized approach and environment.”

Carter is returning to public school this fall, but Anderson is reluctant.

“If this doesn’t work, we’re seriously considering leaving the province. Because what else is there right now?” she said.

Government comments clarified

On Thursday, Department of Education spokeswoman Krista Higdon clarified LeRoux’s comments in an email.

She said he was specifically referring to the “flexibility aspect” of the policy, which involves school teams working with families to “ensure that all students have access to an equitable, high-quality education.”

Higdon added that sometimes a student might spend part of the day in a smaller group or a quiet room at school with a specialist, such as a speech therapist or a support worker.

She said examples of “alternative programming” could include the International Baccalaureate or Options and Opportunities programs, crafts, a learning center or other “stand-alone programs.”

A man with white hair wearing a suit jacket and a white striped shirt stands in front of two Nova Scotia flags with a Canadian flag in the middle.
Elwin LeRoux is Nova Scotia’s Deputy Minister of Education. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

However, Sprecht argued that school staff should not be taken out of a traditional classroom, but rather encouraged to ensure that students are accepted in a group situation.

Specht believes that teachers and teaching assistants should also be given the tools to help students regulate their emotions and behavior, so that it does not get to the point where the student wants to leave the classroom altogether.

“When you do that, it’s not only good for the kids with disabilities, it’s good for the teachers to learn different ways of teaching. It’s good for the other kids to understand that there’s a range of human conditions.”

In Anna’s case, Danielle doesn’t know if or when her daughter will go back to school.

But for now, Anna is enjoying the time she spends at home with her mother, learning math through baking and grocery shopping, getting outside, and working on her mental health.

“Home is a place where she doesn’t feel like she has to pretend,” Danielle said. “I know her intelligence level will take her far … but there are different things about the school system that I would love for her to experience, but I’m really sad and disappointed that she just doesn’t.”

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