As the principal of an elementary school and the parent of two young children, I have been thinking a lot lately about the special needs of all of our learners in the public education system.
Over the past week, administrators in my district have been working on placing Education Assistant (EA) hours that have been allotted to us. It is a heartbreaking, stressful process trying to create workable groups of designated special needs students to work with the EA hours that have been given to us. It seems like every year, we try to work with less. The hours also always need to be stretched to unofficially support those students who are undesignated or designated but do not qualify for EA support. There are never enough hours. And because it is difficult to ask for more funding, we begin to question, what we are doing wrong. Are we overlooking efficiencies? Are there designated students who do not need as many hours as we think? Are we not encouraging special needs students to gradually pull away from being dependent on EAs? Do teachers have access to enough professional development to support special needs students? Many administrators struggle with these questions and prepare themselves for the inevitable frustrations and stress that the announcement of the EAs and the possible placement of students for next year creates in our school community. We try to do the best we can, but it is difficult for administrators to not to feel the fires are just temporarily being put out and that they will start again in time.
Now where does this leave our Gifted students? (and yes, Gifted students have special needs). I recently attended the Gifted Children’s Association of BC Mini Conference. (where I heard the title of this blog post stated numerous times!). I met many parents who are tirelessly advocating for their children and sadly many of them have resorted to pulling their children from the public school system to home school, transfer to an independent school, unschool or participate in a combination of alternative schooling. In addition to the emotional and financial burden of doing this, many parents are paying thousands of dollars to get their kids psychological education (psycho ed) assessments that public schools cannot provide because of the long wait list where gifted students are often put at the bottom. Psycho Ed assessments provide parents and schools with an in-depth report of the areas of strengths and needs and recommends ways to support the student. Psycho Ed assessments are often needed to attach designations to students and for schools to access funding. Even with officially gaining the “Gifted” designation, though, parents are frustrated with getting the crumbs (if even that) of support that is left over from the “more needy students”.
Being able to tirelessly and successfully advocate for your child’s special needs is often taken on by the parents who are doing well financially or have decided to put aside their basic financial needs to seek support. I worry about those students who come from families who struggle with their own day to day survival. How are they to advocate for their child? Who advocates for these kids and their parents?
Not being able to fully meet the special needs of our students is a growing problem. I understand that the funding tap cannot be open all the time and there is work that can be done to improve the efficient use of the funding that we do get. Having conversations with all parties involved and being transparent is important. As a society, If we believe that inclusion is important, we should also believe that the appropriate funding for full inclusion to work is also important. At times like this though, it feels like trying to push molasses uphill.