Patti Bacchus: Here's a problem Education Minister Rob Fleming can fix

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      Education Minister Rob Fleming is doing a lot of things right, and he’s a refreshing change from his B.C. Liberal predecessors. He inherited a battered and malnourished school system that took a beating under 16 years of a Liberal government that seemed to have it in for public education. Fleming is forging better relationships with key education partner groups and speeding up the pace of school seismic upgrades.

      He also cites impressive numbers about the record levels of teachers being hired to staff B.C. classrooms and reminds people how much more money is going into the public-education system.

      That’s all true, and it’s great news, even though the teacher part is partly (or perhaps even largely) due to the B.C. Teachers' Federation's (BCTF) 2016 Supreme Court victory. The bad news is the picture is still far from rosy in too many B.C. classrooms.

      Fleming needs to do something about that. Now. And, yes, I will explain how. Here’s one urgent, fixable problem and the solution.

      One problem remains unaddressed

      I tend to hear from school trustees, parents, and teachers when things aren’t going well. They ask my advice about what they can do, and it’s usually about getting appropriate support for students who are falling through the many cracks that remain in the school system. Usually I have some ideas to offer, but last week I was stumped and saddened by messages I got from a teacher who was at the end of their rope. Their story was all too familiar. I hear variations of it weekly.

      They (I’m using a gender-neutral pronoun intentionally) teach in a complex elementary classroom with some students who have special-needs designations, along with others who’ve experienced severe childhood trauma and apparent psychological disorders. Their school is in a low-income community where many parents struggle to get by and lack the resources (time, money, education, language proficiency, etcetera) to support their kids the way other parents may be able to.

      The teacher is passionate about their work and, like many, goes above and beyond to meet their students’ needs, even if that means using their own money to buy nutritious snacks and other classroom supplies.

      They love their students and want to be sure they can thrive in class and in life. Their school district provides a special-education assistant (EA) to help in their classroom, but they have more kids who need extra support than one person can provide. They’re worried about a student who appears to be on a dangerous trajectory, due to severe trauma and perhaps some other kinds of undiagnosed disorders. The student’s increasingly alarming behavior is worrying the teacher, who is trying to get the support the student needs.

      The teacher has reached out everywhere they can think of for help: their principal, their school-district management and their union representative. Everyone cares and everyone is trying to help. There seems to be a consensus that, among other things, the teacher needs another support worker in the class to keep the student safe and manage their behaviour so the teacher can focus on teaching. They’re not getting one because of a staffing shortage.

      Teachers taking time off doesn't help students

      Instead, they’re being advised to book some time off due to stress-induced physical ailments they’re now experiencing. So they take a few days off, where they stay home and worry about their students and message me and others, asking for advice. I’m all out of that and feel frustrated and, quite frankly, useless. Meanwhile, things are escalating in the classroom, which has to be evacuated multiple times over just a few days due to a potentially dangerous escalation of a student’s behaviour.

      And what about the kids? It’s one thing for a teacher working under stressful conditions to get a few days off to rest and regroup, but what about the students in those classrooms?

      Everyone in that classroom—and the many others like it—is being failed. The traumatized and disturbed student whose needs are not being addressed and who is lashing out in desperation. The rest of the students who should be spending class time learning instead of being evacuated to a safer space and having lessons disrupted by a child in crisis. The teacher who is developing physical symptoms and questioning their career choice and feeling helpless and disheartened that they can’t help the child in the way the child needs help. All of them are being failed.

      Even taxpayers who pay for public schools are being failed when complex classes are undersupported and students aren’t able to get the most out of school days we’re paying for.

      That teacher is not an exception, sadly. A quick glance at Twitter and the #bced hashtag brings up stories of teachers who are trying to cope with complex classes without adequate support or who are assigned support workers but often go without them because of staffing shortages.

      Social media highlights shortages

      “I have gone without a substitute support worker five times this year, and I am alone in a portable with my entire class (12 students) having “H” designations [the ministry of education assigns “H” designations to students with severe behavrior issues or serious mental illness].  I love my students, but this is, and always has been, a two-person job,” a teacher tweeted last weekend.

      And another: “My regular support worker was absent today. Unfortunately, the substitute support worker who was originally assigned was pulled to another school, and the call out was stopped, so no support this morning. This happens every day. Every day. My colleague was without support for four weeks when the [EA] in his class was off with pregnancy complications. Four weeks.”

      And then there are the students with special needs who get sent home when there isn’t an EA available to support them, which can mean a parent has to leave work to pick them up and care for them for the day or not send them for full days on a regular basis. Those students are being denied access to education because of their disability, which is flat-out discrimination, and their parents' ability to earn a living is denied.

      The shortage causes stress for the EAs too, as they’re called on to support multiple students, often in more than one classroom, forcing them into a triage situation of dealing with the most urgent situations and going from crisis to crisis. It’s a dysfunctional and inefficient way to run a school system.

      I spent years advocating for students with special needs and eight years as a school trustee. You’d think I’d have a solution for these teachers, students, and parents struggling with the EA shortage, and I don’t, but I know who does: Fleming. The question is whether he’s willing to acknowledge what is clearly an urgent problem affecting students and teachers all over B.C., and whether he’s willing to take concrete measures to do something about it.

      In a perfect world, where the school system was designed to be universally accessible and classes were balanced and manageable, we wouldn’t need as many EAs as we do. But we’re not anywhere near that point yet and we still need more of them than we have.

      Here’s the solution to the EA shortage

      There’s been a lot of progress in addressing the teacher shortage. It’s not over, but it’s a lot better than it was a year or two ago. Now it’s time to tackle the education-assistant shortage, which has been an issue for years.

      First of all, we need to get a clear picture of how bad the problem is so we know where to target the fixes and so we can measure progress in addressing the problem and hold districts accountable for doing their part to ensure supports are in place where they’re needed.

      The government of New Brunswick announced last week that it will track the number of students who only attend school for part of the day. That will make them the first province to do so. B.C. should be the second. New Brunswick will use an online tool that tracks student’s schedules, reasons for exclusion from school, and what kind of supports the schools have in place to support students who aren’t being allowed to attend school full-time.

      As far as I know, two B.C. school districts—North Vancouver and Greater Victoria—have taken the lead on this kind of tracking, but it needs to be done in every district and to be reported in a consistent format.

      The same approach needs to be taken for unfilled EA absences and vacant EA jobs that aren’t being filled. This kind of tracking and reporting is needed to make school districts take the problem seriously and to hold them accountable.

      Reporting and tracking are the first steps. We also need to increase the supply of EAs.

      Currently, there aren’t enough seats in postsecondary training programs to provide enough trained education assistants for school districts. Fleming needs to work with Advanced Education Minister Melanie Mark to increase the number of spaces and make it affordable and accessible to take the program, which is usually a year long or less.

      A couple of school districts—Burnaby and Vancouver—have taken matters into their own hands and are offering their own EA training programs to try to keep up with demand for trained workers. Fleming and Mark should have a look at their programs and see if they are something that could be offered throughout the province.

      He also needs to make being an EA an attractive career choice so people will take the training programs and fill all the vacancies.

      Then he needs to sit down with school boards and CUPE BC, which represents education assistants, to come up with a plan to increase employee retention—and attract more people to the field. EAs don’t get paid full-time hours, and many can’t afford to live on what they earn as EAs. They often take on second (and sometimes third) jobs to make ends meet. Some can make that work for the long term, but in many cases, it leads to exhaustion and illness and a decision to move on to some other kind of work.

      Fleming needs to make being an EA a sustainable, long-term career option. Yes, that’s going to cost something, but doing nothing means school districts will continue having trouble finding and keeping enough EAs to fill all the staff vacancies and backfill for those who are off sick.

      He also needs to work with school boards to make sure there’s adequate support available to ensure teachers aren’t off sick due to stress and resorting to messaging former school-board chairs out of desperation to find help for kids they know are slipping through cracks, toward danger. Teachers with complex classrooms need to have time to work with school counsellors and resource teachers to collaborate on effective strategies to meet students’ needs and ensure they aren’t becoming overwhelmed.

      Put the senior managers to work

      If a school district can’t find someone to fill in for an absent EA, or if it decides it can’t afford to provide one to an overly complex classroom in crisis, then Fleming needs to tell the many senior managers in district offices to step out from behind their desks and get out to school and help out in those classrooms themselves.

      I guarantee that if some of those well-paid folks in air-conditioned head offices had to fill in for absent EAs, solving the EA shortage would become their priority too.

      If Fleming continues to ignore the EA shortage and the problems it causes, he is failing students, parents, teachers, EAs, and all of us who pay taxes to provide quality public education for all kids.

      The EA shortage isn’t the only problem for students with special needs in public schools, but it’s an urgent one and there’s no excuse for not fixing it. Many students also need timely access to qualified educational psychologists, counsellors, speech-language pathologists, mental-health professionals and resource teachers with expertise in special-needs education.

      Minister Fleming has the power to fix the EA shortage. The question is whether he has the will to put together a concrete plan and track its implementation.

      For everyone’s sake, I hope he does.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.

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