Last week, the B.C. Ministry of Education released the results of the 2007 Foundation Skills Assessment, a provincewide test aimed at measuring the reading, writing, and math skills of students in grades 4 and 7. Students, a ministry news release touted, were doing well in writing and math, but reading skills "could be improved".
The FSA results indicated that 90 percent of Grade 4 students are meeting or exceeding expectations in writing, while 86 percent of Grade 7 students are doing so–the latter grade down one percent from last year. In reading, 77 percent of Grade 4 students are meeting or exceeding expectations–a decrease of three percent from last year–and 72 percent of Grade 7 students are doing the same, down one percent from last year and down a full five percent from 2002-03. In math, the number of Grade 4 students meeting or exceeding expectations remained at 86 percent, while the number of Grade 7 students decreased to 82 percent from 84 percent last year.
The news release quoted Education Minister Shirley Bond as stating: "We know that early learning lays the foundation for future success."
Try telling that to Delphine McIntyre. For the past five years, the Burnaby stay-at-home mother has been struggling to get adequate help for her 11-year-old son, David, and her nine-year-old daughter, Theresa. David, a sensitive, high-energy kid with a mischievous streak, was diagnosed two years ago as having dyslexia (difficulties in processing written language), dysgraphia (writing difficulties due to fine-motor-skills and/or processing difficulties), a developmental-coordination delay, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
"We knew right away at a very early age that he was having problems," McIntyre recalls in the kitchen of her modest Burnaby bungalow, the table taken up by a board game recently played by the kids. Her husband, Doug, who works in membership services at Costco, is in the bedroom, recuperating from a viral heart infection he contracted in the summer. Until he returns to work, which may happen in December, the family is living on his disability pay.
"It took until Grade 4 before they assessed him [David]," McIntyre continues. "The only reason they assessed him was that, typically, as a learning-challenged boy, he acted out.”¦Because of his behaviour, which was very hard for the school to handle, they assessed him. It took five years."
For all the ministry's talk of improving reading skills and promoting literacy, McIntyre isn't seeing much in the way of support for her kids.
"When they [the school] gave us David's assessment, they said, 'Yes, he is severely learning-disabled. He's dyslexic; he's dysgraphic; he has nonverbal-learning disabilities; he has fine-motor-skills issues; but he's okay. He's coming along. Don't worry about it.' Nobody said, 'There's a learning-disabilities association.' I had to find it. Nobody referred me. I found it on my own."
David also clearly has a speech impairment, but McIntyre says he is not receiving any speech therapy.
Theresa, meanwhile, a pale and quiet child, has not yet been assessed, but McIntyre is convinced that she has difficulties and says the school has acknowledged that there is an issue.
"She has panic attacks," McIntyre explains. "The school says, 'Well, David is on medication [Concerta, an ADHD medication] for his learning challenges. Have you ever thought about medicating Theresa?'”¦.They say, 'Teach the anxiety and we can teach the child.' I say the manner of teaching is creating the anxiety. So now I've got a nine-year-old girl on Prozac because she can't handle school."
Watching her kids struggle, McIntyre says, "is devastating".
How did the McIntyre family end up in this predicament? The answer lies in recent history. In 2002, the B.C. government "detargeted" $230 million from special education, allowing school districts full discretion on spending. At the same time, the ministry changed its data reporting so that school districts were no longer required to outline expenditures related to high-incidence (relatively frequent) special-education needs. According to the B.C. Teachers' Federation, many school districts stopped providing extra funding for students with learning disabilities such as dyslexia. The consequence, says BCTF first vice-president Susan Lambert, is that "we're just not designating those kids."
Statistics from the Ministry of Education indicate a decline in the identification of high-incidence special-needs children. From 2001-02 to 2006-07, the number of students identified in three out of four special-needs categories dropped remarkably: a 32.9-percent reduction in students with mild intellectual disabilities; a 33.2-percent reduction in students requiring moderate behaviour support or having a mental illness; and a 41.8-percent reduction in gifted students. Even with the loss of funding, however, the number of students identified as having learning disabilities actually increased over the same period, by 12.4 percent.
A February 2007 report from the Ministry of Education cheerfully states that "boards have not reported growth in the numbers of high incidence students in recent years–in fact, they have declined." But, Lambert insists, "Those children haven't disappeared. They're there. They're in classrooms, and teachers are trying to attend to them."
That's difficult to do when the numbers of special-education resource teachers and educational psychologists in public schools have been slashed. According to a 2005 report by BCTF researcher Charlie Naylor, special-education staffing was cut by 18 percent between 2001 and 2005, more than double the level of general cuts in teacher numbers, which saw a decrease of 7.8 percent. In contrast, general student enrollment has declined by only 3.5 percent. At the same time, the number of students designated as having a learning disability has actually increased.
(After the Georgia Straight placed a request for an interview with Education Minister Bond, ministry spokesperson Lara Perzoff took four days to advise that Bond was "travelling" and unavailable to comment.)
With the public school system increasingly failing to keep pace with the special-needs students, it's not surprising that more and more parents are pulling out the credit cards or taking out bank loans to access services that are available privately, from diagnosis and tutoring to full-time specialized schooling. According to Diane Sugars, executive director of the Learning Disabilities Association of Vancouver (LDAV), the average wait time in Vancouver for an assessment by a school psychologist is about two years. "The majority of parents don't want to wait, so you get out the Visa or whatever you have to do and you get the diagnosis done."
The cost of a psycho-educational assessment is $1,500 to $2,000, and it's normally repeated every two to three years. The cost of Orton-Gillingham tutoring (a multisensory approach specific to dyslexia) is about $50 an hour. Private-school fees vary: Burnaby's Kenneth Gordon School for learning-disabled children aged seven to 12 charges $12,800 per year; Vancouver's Fraser Academy costs $20,750 per year for grades 1 to 7, and $21,010 for grades 8 to 12; the Glen Eden Multimodal Centre in Vancouver for children with special needs charges $2,700 to $4,000 a month for full-time schooling; the James Cameron School in Maple Ridge costs $760 a month for elementary-school-aged kids with learning disabilities; and full-time tuition at the Eaton Arrowsmith School, a new institution in Vancouver that uses intensive cognitive exercises, is $19,850 per year, plus annual assessment fees.
In 2003, the Learning Disabilities Association of B.C. (LDABC) surveyed its membership and received feedback from about 100 families. Of these, 20 percent reported that requests for assessments from the public school system were rejected, either for lack of funding by the school, because of inflexible rules governing the assessment process, or, according to the LDABC report, because unqualified personnel determined that the student's condition was not severe enough to require assessment. But when these children were assessed privately, almost half were found to have a severe learning disability, and 43 percent were diagnosed with a mild or moderate learning disability.
Other startling findings of the survey included that only 18 percent of students were receiving resource-room support, although 44 percent had a severe learning disability. Learning assistance outside the regular-education classroom was being provided for only 28 percent of students. Fifty-nine percent of parents reported a decrease in their child's service levels from the previous year, and 56 percent paid for private support services. Only three percent of parents indicated that the system was fully meeting their needs.
Parents were also asked whether or not they would want their child to attend a public school aimed at students with learning disabilities if one were available in their community, and more than three-quarters said yes. No such school exists, but the LDAV has been working on creating one. Last month, Sugars met with Bond, who last February floated the possibility of creating "provincial demonstration schools" that could include institutions for students with special needs and for First Nations students. The prospect of a publicly funded school solely for children with learning disabilities has been hotly debated in the education community. Parents of kids with severe learning disabilities say that the current system of inclusion within the public system is not providing the kind of structured learning environment their kids need, and that in many cases it leads to bullying and self-esteem problems. Advocates of inclusion, however, say the plan smacks uncomfortably of the days of forced segregation and would turn back the clock 20 years.
"We believe a public education system is an inclusive system, and a neighbourhood school needs to welcome every child within that catchment and needs to provide a maximum learning opportunity for that child," the BCTF's Lambert says. "We believe that that is the best, not only for every child, but it's best for the whole community because you're teaching everyone in the community. It's called universal design. We are all members of society. We all have special needs and we all need to learn to live with each other and to live with each other productively and lovingly and cooperatively in a way that builds society. That doesn't happen when you segregate children."
Sugars, however, insists that meeting the needs of students with learning disabilities within the current system is virtually impossible. "The perfect school, of course, has a small class size so that all children can learn, and one-on-one teaching for those children who need that, and social-skills training.”¦We need an occupational-therapy room for those kids with fine and gross motor deficits, and psychologists and counsellors for those at-risk kids and families who are stressed over raising a disabled child. Try and envision every school having all those amenities. It's not going to happen."
Delphine McIntyre, for one, says she would camp out overnight to get her kids enrolled if such a school ever materialized. But in the meantime, she has been taking David to the Learning Disabilities Association of Vancouver for Orton-Gillingham tutoring, at a cost of $480 per eight-week session. Without support from the Variety Children's Charity and the CKNW Orphans' Fund, she says, "on our family income, we could not afford this." Paying for a psycho-educational assessment for Theresa is simply out of the question. As for private-school fees? "Honestly, I don't know anybody that can afford the programs," she says, breaking into tears of frustration. "If I had the money to have them in [a private special-education] school now, I would. But it's not feasible. I could go out and get a job, outside the home, but then I'm not available when the kids need me, and as a special-needs kid, they need me."
The plight of low-income families faced with children with severe learning disabilities was thrust into the limelight two years ago, when, on December 21, 2005, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ruled that the B.C. Education Ministry discriminates against learning-disabled students when it fails to give them proper support in the school system.
The decision came out of a 2001 complaint filed by Rick Moore, a North Vancouver bus driver, on behalf of his son Jeffrey. Back in the mid 1990s, Jeffrey was caught by the closure of a special diagnostic centre for learning-disabled students in his North Vancouver district. Jeffrey's school recommended to the Moores that Jeffrey attend Kenneth Gordon School to address his severe learning disabilities. After studies at Kenneth Gordon, the Moores were advised that Jeffrey should attend high school at Fraser Academy. The tribunal ruled in 2005 that the ministry and district were to reimburse the Moores for the tuition they paid, and to pay $10,000 to Jeffrey, now an apprentice plumber, for injury to dignity. The ministry filed an appeal for a judicial review, which was completed last July. A judgment is pending.
Today, Rick Moore says it's because of families like the McIntyres that he filed his complaint. Moore says he and his wife, a secretary, spent about $100,000 on tuition for Jeffrey, even with bursaries. "When my son went to Fraser Academy, my feeling was there were very few kids there that were even middle class, like we are," Moore reflects. "Almost every kid there would have been able to afford a private-school education. That's not fair. It's really not fair. It was a struggle for us."
The current situation, in which the ministry simply hands money over to the districts to do with as they please, Moore says, is not only inefficient but in contravention of the B.C. School Act, which states that "the minister must make annually a report on the state of education in British Columbia including the effectiveness of educational programs."
"If you look at the School Act," Moore says, "it says the government must do much more than just write a cheque.”¦The School Act says they have a responsibility to monitor results. They have a responsibility to know what best practices are. The other problem with them just leaving it to the districts is you may have one district that is enlightened and has a good program for kids with, in my son's case, dyslexia, but another district might have nothing at all."
What's ironic about Moore's case is that the school district of North Vancouver is, he says, one of the best in terms of early diagnosis and intervention. Jeffrey was identified as having a learning disability in kindergarten. Other districts aren't so quick off the mark.
Linda Siegel, a professor of special education at UBC, testified on behalf of the North Vancouver school district in the Moore case. And although she says that the district has been good at identifying students early, she notes that many others are failing to do so.
"Basically, what I see is that a number of children are missed and they're just not picked up by the school system early," says Siegel, who coauthored a provincial review of special education in 1999. "What happens, not just in Vancouver but in many other districts, is that the child's behaviour deteriorates because of the struggles, and then it's seen as a behaviour problem."
Early intervention is crucial, Siegel says, to ensuring success for students with learning difficulties. "The brain is more plastic [in young children]," she explains. "I think people with learning disabilities can be helped at any time, but certainly in the early elementary grades it's much easier and much more effective. What happens when they're older is that you start developing ways to compensate for it. So they might have increased time to take an examination, but it would have been better if you could have helped them early on so that they wouldn't need that increased time."
Even so, Siegel is not in favour of a publicly funded school for children with learning disabilities. "First of all, we should be putting the money, the effort, the resources, into improving the instruction that goes on in the regular classroom, which benefits all children but especially benefits the children who have learning disabilities," she says. "We have specialized teachers called resource teachers. Well, we need more of them.”¦We have the private schools because the public schools aren't doing everything that they could."
So what happens to students whose learning disabilities are not identified early and whose needs are not met? The prospects are dire. According to statistics compiled by the LDAV, 35 percent of students with learning disabilities drop out of school, and the rate of unemployment for students with learning disabilities two years out of school is twice that of students in the general population. According to Siegel, "Many of the young people who live on the streets, homeless young people, have learning disabilities that have not been properly identified and treated. Many adolescent suicides”¦are the result of learning disabilities that have not been properly identified.”¦There's evidence that substance abuse, adolescent substance abuse, is often the result of learning disabilities that have not been adequately identified and treated."
Those kinds of statistics have McIntyre fearing the worst. "I'm terrified," she says shakily when asked about the future. "David is a follower; he's not a leader. If he's angry and frustrated, who is he going to follow? He is going to go wherever he can get acceptance, and that could be the kids hanging out on the corner smoking dope and doing worse.”¦He's not finding it in the school. In the school, he's the retarded kid, he's the dummy, he's the one they pick on.”¦If I don't continue to intervene, yes, he will be a juvenile delinquent. Yes, he will be on drugs."
And if that happens, McIntyre says, she'll know who to blame. "In my view, he's not falling through the cracks," she says, sobbing. "They"–those running the public school system–"have made the crack and pushed him into it."
Link: BC Ministry of Education