Participants at last Thursday’s forum on the future of public education seemed to agree that New Brunswick’s schools are among the best in the world, but they also raised concerns about the unmet needs of students with disabilities.
The roughly 85 participants — parents, teachers, students, school support workers, local politicians and other community members — were grouped around several tables in Sackville’s Town Hall as they discussed the strengths and weaknesses of provincial schools. They were responding to the government’s latest ideas for reform outlined in the discussion paper it released in October.
“There’s not enough funding for the basic resources that are required in schools,” said Margaret Tusz-King as she summarized issues that people at her table had discussed.
She was referring to the requirement that all students, including those with disabilities, learn together with their peers in the same classroom.
“Students with disabilities, if they’re quiet, they’re ignored,” Tusz-King said. “The way they get attention is by acting out, but then, what we’re doing is we’re entrenching really negative behaviours because the school system is not meeting the needs of students.”
Her concerns were echoed by a number of other participants including Sackville town councillor Allison Butcher, who is director of Playschool Inc., a licensed program that provides early childhood education in Sackville.
Butcher said public schools need money for more educational assistants (EAs) to help students with disabilities.
“Often they are the ones that need the most specific training in assisting children and are lower paid and less educated than they should be,” Butcher added.
Deputy minister responds
George Daley, the deputy minister of education who was leading the discussion, agreed that changes need to be made to school inclusion policies, and perhaps to the heavy reliance on EAs, who have now become what he called “personal care workers” for students with special needs.
“For the great work that they do, they don’t have the knowledge to deal with some of the high-end cases that they’re dealing with,” Daley said, adding that maybe schools could choose to spend money instead on hiring more highly trained resource teachers.
At the same time, he said the province would be reviewing what he called the “funding model” for inclusion with the possibility that some schools would get more money for it and some would get less.
Daley, former head of the New Brunswick teachers’ union, said he was asked to draft a plan on inclusion — or “classroom composition” as it’s also known — a couple of weeks after he was hired as deputy minister on November 12th.
“So, I gave them a plan and we’ll see what response comes back,” he said.
To read a CBC report on Daley’s position on inclusion in 2017 when he was serving as president of the teachers’ association, click here.
Dominic Cardy, the minister of education, could not attend Thursday’s forum because of illness, but is on record as a strong opponent of hiring more educational assistants.
Meantime, CUPE local 2745, the union that represents EAs, has criticized Cardy’s paper on the future of public education for not even mentioning them.
“CUPE hopes the government understands the need to guarantee full-time, permanent EAs in all classrooms,” the union says in a statement.
Focus on student interests
Thursday’s forum also heard from Phillip Jarvis, president of the Transitions Canada Coalition, a non-profit group that is seeking federal funding to promote student-centred learning in every province.
After citing surveys showing that only about a third of New Brunswick high school students are fully engaged with their education, he called on the province to focus more on what interests students and how students can work on issues they care about.
“Is it the environment, is it homelessness, is it lost pets, is it plastics in the ocean, is it injustice, truth and reconciliation?” Jarvis asked.
“I think the biggest strength that you’ve got in Sackville,” he added, “is actually the brains of those kids…Getting them to think about the issues they care about in this world and how they want to make a difference in improving the world is the best (approach to learning).”
Deputy Minister Daley responded with a “word of caution” that the education system isn’t prepared at the moment to give students the power to let them pursue whatever they want.
“If you’re going to engage students, you’ve really got to engage them, you can’t then pull it back,” he said. “Remember that sometimes they may go down roads where you don’t think they should go.”