Increasing inclusiveness requires resources and funding

February 10, 2015

Part four of a seven-part series

On Sept. 10, 2014, the Alberta Teachers’ Association released the Report of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Inclusive Education in Alberta Schools.

The report is the product of an arm’s-length panel formed in May 2013 due to a myriad of concerns from teachers and administrators. Panel members represented a broad range of roles and perspectives within the education system. Based on face-to-face meetings and in-depth research, the panel concluded that a previously released framework to make schools more inclusive (Alberta Education’s Setting the Direction Framework, published in 2009) had not been ­effectively implemented.

The panel’s 38 recommendations are arranged around seven themes:

(1) shared vision,
(2) leadership,
(3) research and evidence,
(4) resources,
(5) teacher professional growth,
(6) time and
(7) community engagement.

In this, the fourth of a seven-part series, the ATA News outlines the recommendations that fall within the fourth of these seven themes.

Resources

Human resources, materials, funding and infrastructure are in place to realize the intended outcomes.

Recommendation 19 — to Alberta Education

Establish and implement structures to ensure that provincewide guidelines for average class sizes across school jurisdictions are achieved and that classroom complexity is weighted in these guidelines.

In 2003, Alberta’s Commission on Learning recommended the following class size guidelines:

• junior kindergarten to Grade 3 — 17 students
• grades 4 to 6 — 23 students
• grades 7 to 9 — 25 students
• grades 10 to 12 — 27 students

In setting class size, class composition must also be considered. Classes including students with exceptional learning needs, students whose first language is not English, and vulnerable and at-risk students should be smaller than the suggested guidelines.

The pressures of teaching in classrooms of increasing size and complexity are taking their toll on Alberta’s teachers. In submissions to the blue ribbon panel, teachers noted that the time it takes to support students with exceptional needs affects the support they can provide to all students in the classroom. One response to this dilemma is to provide more educational assistants, and no one would dispute their importance in the inclusive classroom, but we need the most highly qualified people in the system — certificated teachers—to work with students with complex needs. A foundational element of effective instruction is formative assessment, and it is this information that teachers need in order to plan and adjust programs for students with exceptional needs.

Formative, especially descriptive, assessment takes time and becomes exponentially more difficult the more students a teacher has. Research has shown that class size does matter: the more students in a class, the more time-consuming it is to create effective plans, to understand students as learners and to create the relationships needed to support learning.

Recommendation 20 — to Government of Alberta

Expand access to early intervention programs, including full-day, play-based kindergarten programs with certificated teachers, to ensure that children with diverse learning needs have the supports and programs they require before they come to school and into the early grades.

Some early intervention supports are available, including program unit funding (PUF) for students. This funding is provided to school authorities for children with severe disabilities or delays who require additional support beyond that offered in a regular early childhood services (ECS) program. PUF is provided for individualized programming that meets the educational needs of children with severe disabilities or delays who are at least two years, six months of age, and less than six years of age, and PUF may be paid for a maximum of three years for each eligible child.

There are challenges related to this funding program. For example, if a student begins receiving programming at age two-and-a-half, there will be a one-year gap between the time when PUF funding stops and the time when the student can enter Grade 1. This funding has enabled a number of innovative programs to develop, and has offered flexibility to provide the supports and services needed to early learners.

In the field, however, there is a well-known phrase — “from PUF to poof.” This refers to the fact that the additional supports disappear for vulnerable students when they turn six, and the funding in the K – 12 system is not sufficient to provide the same level of support. Parents and teachers are frustrated because this kind of intervention needs to continue for most students throughout their elementary years in order to give them a good foundation as they move through adolescence and adulthood.

Recommendation 21 — to Government of Alberta

Provide Regional Collaborative Service Delivery (RCSD) boards with direct funding, not just enhanced funding, to facilitate decision making at the RCSD leadership and governance tables.

Regional Collaborative Service ­Delivery (RCSD) is intended to provide more effective, streamlined access to supports and services to ensure student success. Stakeholders are supportive of better collaboration and more effective use of services; however, schools are reporting less service, rather than more, under this new model.

The complexities of working with Alberta Education, as well as with Alberta Health and Alberta Human Services, have been more than anticipated. At this time, there is a small amount of enhanced funding, but for more substantial projects or changes, representatives have to return to their ministries and plead their case for funding. In many cases, baseline funding provided for these services has not increased. If the baseline money were put directly into each RCSD and boards were not focused mainly on governance but, rather, had money from each ministry to do the work, changes could be made. At this point, school jurisdictions are bearing most of the burden, as they must attempt to meet the needs of the children in their care.

Recommendation 22 — to Alberta Education

Develop a provincial standard and provide targeted funding to school jurisdictions to ensure that each school has adequate access to a trained school counsellor, preferably a certificated teacher.

School counsellors work with students, staff and parents to meet the educational, personal/social and career needs of students.

In 2003, Alberta’s Commission on Learning recommended that schools and school jurisdictions “ensure that all students have access to adequate counselling, diagnostic, and other support services necessary for them to succeed.” The commission felt strongly that all students should have access to both career and personal counselling.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one full-time equivalent (FTE) counsellor for every 250 students. The ATA also uses this ratio in its policies. The Guidance Council of the Alberta Teachers’ Association has done extensive sampling, and the current average across Alberta for school jurisdictions with counselling staff is one FTE counsellor for every 800 students, which is far too few counsellors in any system but particularly in an inclusive system.

Recommendation 23 — to Alberta Education

Ensure that there is adequate funding to effectively support

•  students who require behaviour support,
•  English-language learners,
•  students who are gifted and talented,
•  students who live in poverty,
•  students who are new to Canada,
•  students from refugee backgrounds and
•  students who are suffering from trauma.

Classrooms are complex communities, and some students have exceptional needs. These include students who require behaviour support, ­English-language learners, students who are gifted and talented, students who live in poverty, students who are new to Canada, students from refugee backgrounds and students who are ­suffering from trauma.

Respondents to the survey identified many of these exceptional needs as requiring much more support than is being provided. In their submissions to the blue ribbon panel, only 19 per cent of teachers indicated that they had the supports and resources needed to create behaviour support plans, three per cent said they had time to create the plans, and six per cent said they had time to implement the plans. In addition, there were numerous comments about the detrimental effects of severe behaviour on the learning of the student, as well as classmates.

Recommendation 24 — to Alberta Education

Provide sufficient funding to ensure that each student has access to assistive technology to support his or her learning, including funding for related teacher professional development and adequate bandwidth, technical support and electrical systems.

The benefits of having technology tools at students’ fingertips are well known, and many of the applications and assistive technologies, in particular, can begin to level the playing field.

Learning Technologies: Information for Teachers, a website funded by Alberta Education, explains:

Inspiring Education supports a vision of success for every student in an inclusive education system. Achieving this vision requires focusing on the learner, and leveraging technology to support thecreation and sharing of knowledge. In today’s classrooms, a wide range of technologies are also creating new options for differentiated instruction and for the inclusion of students with disabilities.

Alberta teachers agree and wish that they had access to such technologies. In their submissions to the blue ribbon panel, only 17 per cent of teachers indicated satisfaction with access to assistive technology, compared with 36 per cent in 2007. There were many comments in the submissions and the focus groups about the need for better access to technology for all students.

There is also a need for professional development so that teachers understand what tools are available and how best to use them, as well as for support in schools to ensure that the technology is working consistently and that help is available when it does not.

Recommendation 25 — to Government of Alberta

Provide adequate supports and qualified health-care professionals for medically fragile students.

Teachers are not health-care professionals, yet both teachers and educational assistants are often asked to provide medical support to students with chronic medical conditions.

These students require medical intervention provided by health-care professionals. Such supports were touted in Setting the Direction, but schools have yet to see many actual supports for such students in the school. Community health-care professionals have an important role to play in providing the level of support these students deserve if we are to become a truly inclusive system.

Recommendation 26 — to school jurisdictions

Provide appropriate, ongoing training of educational assistants who work with students with diverse learning needs, where assistants are required.

Educational assistants can provide valuable support for students with exceptional needs, but teachers are reporting that the assistance they receive has been in decline. In 2007, 71 per cent of teachers indicated satisfaction with the level of support received from educational assistants, but this dropped to 25 per cent in 2014.

Only 33 per cent of respondents in 2014 felt that educational assistants had sufficient training to perform expected duties. In many cases, there is a need for more training for educational assistants as they work with students with complex needs. It is not enough to simply create practice standards for educational assistants. Many educational assistants have no formal training, so there must be a plan in each school jurisdiction for systematic and sufficient training for assistants.

Recommendation 27 — to Alberta Education

Ensure that all school facilities are fully accessible and provide targeted funding to school jurisdictions with ­facilities not meeting this standard.

The accessibility of school facilities was one of the items responded to most positively in submissions to the blue ribbon panel. Fifty-seven per cent of respondents felt that washrooms, elevators, buildings and the like were accessible.

During panel discussions, the issue of accessible facilities was raised. There are still many facilities that are not fully accessible, and there is a lack of facilities for students who need specialized care. Several survey participants remarked that proper bathroom facilities were not in place for students who needed toileting assistance. Others discussed the urgent need to have rooms available for students with sensory sensitivities.

Accessibility may be improved by more fully communicating about the programs that school jurisdictions can access to make their facilities fully accessible for students, parents and community members. There is still work to do in creating appropriate spaces for all.  ❚

Read the full report
Read the companion document
Read part one of the ATA News seven-part series
Read part two of the ATA News seven-part series
Read part three of the ATA News seven-part series