I need to say this, right off the bat: I love my children’s school. It’s an alternative school within the public school board. Because it’s within the public school board, it’s free to attend and they follow the provincial curriculum guidelines. Because it’s an alternative school, the students are in the same classroom for two years, they learn at their own pace, they don’t compete, they don’t see any grades or marks on their work, and there is a high focus on arts and creativity. My kids have flourished at this school. I love this school. Did I say that already?
But. This year I love it a little less. You see, last year the school board undertook a review process of the alternative schools. For “review process of”, read “tried to shut down”. The parents and students of the alternative schools fought back. It was an exhausting, difficult fight that dragged on for most of the school year. In the process, there was a lot of media attention to the alternative schools and what exactly makes them different from mainstream schools. As it happens, what makes the alternative schools different also makes them more attractive to students with special needs.
This year, now that the school board has graciously said the alternative schools can stay, a whole raft of new students have signed on – and a lot of those new students have quite severe special needs. Not physical needs like Cerebral Palsy – more like emotional disorders, severe and unmedicated attention deficit disorder, severe learning disabilities, sometimes developmental delays.
So now I find myself in the position of wondering how many special needs students, and what severity level, should be in a regular classroom. I’m in favour of inclusion. Hell, two of my own kids have mild to moderate special needs, and Queen Bee could one day have higher needs than she does now. But when five out of twenty children in the class have fairly intensive needs, and another five have moderate special needs, and there’s only one teacher and one part-time aide in the class – how does the teacher have any time left for actual teaching?
I see it in Creative Cat’s classroom. I have no idea what proportion of the students of her class have special needs, but some of those kids are taking up every spare second of the teacher’s time. Cat hasn’t come home with a single piece of artwork after seven weeks of school. I don’t think they have time for art. I don’t think they have time for creative lessons. I don’t think they have time for the one-on-one attention that is supposed to be the hallmark of this school. One student in particular is getting one-on-one attention. The rest of the class is not. Most especially, the quietly capable Creative Cat is not getting any attention at all from the teacher, and when she doesn’t even have the reward of earning high marks – well, she’s not getting much out of this school year. A single bad school year is not the end of the world. However, she’ll have the same teacher and the same classmates next year. I don’t know if I can sentence my daughter to have TWO bad school years in a row.
Yesterday I was in Tonka’s class. Every child in that class is wonderful and special. I wouldn’t point at any one child and say, “You don’t belong here.” But there were four adults in that classroom yesterday and at times every adult was busy with a child with fairly intense needs. The rest of the children in the class were left to their own devices while we dealt with emotional outbursts, or tried to cajole a child to sit with the rest of the group, or helped a child with the motor and social skills of a toddler. Tonka is ready to read and he needs help with his printing; after seeing his classroom yesterday I realize he’s not going to learn either of these things in school this year. I’m going to have to teach him myself, which means I will be essentially homeschooling him in the mornings and then sending him to Kindergarten in the afternoons to – what? Play with a different set of toys than we have at home?
I feel like a traitor for even thinking about changing schools. I believe in inclusion and diversity – but I also have to think about the best place for my children to learn. If the children with high needs each had an aide and appropriate supports in the classroom, it wouldn’t be a problem. But the funding is not there to provide enough staff and support for all the children to get what they need. It’s a difficult dilemma. I’m not rushing in to any decisions, but the situation is not what I would have hoped for after the first two months of the school year. I hope it improves, and I wonder what the hell I will do if it doesn’t.