PDSB & Province Seek to Increase Support for Special Needs Students

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Schools in Peel Region have a diverse community of students and some of those students need extra support to get through the day. In its latest initiatives, the Peel District School Board (PDSB) is offering its support to those who directly support students with special needs.

Most of the PDSB's 2017-2018 operating budget of nearly $1.9 billion is allocated to fixed costs, such as maintenance and busing. Within the budget, though, there's $15.3 million of local priorities funding. The board will use that money to add more staff, in consultation with groups of current employees.

About half, or $7.5 million, of the local priorities funding will be dedicated to new initiatives. Among them is a plan to hire 70 new teaching assistants (TAs) and 31 new long-term occasional (LTO) TAs.

This new money does not mean there's a lack of pressure on the education system, however, to continue providing support to students with special needs.

“While it is laudable to increase the number of TA roles, there is a need to look at our use of TAs as we move forward," said Chair of the Board Janet McDougald. "We know the need. We see the need. We understand the incredible job our staff do each day with some of our most vulnerable students."

While they know the need is there, and some funding is there, meeting that need is not a financially easy task.

"Our expenditure on TA allocation is growing faster than we can afford. That is not a criticism--it is a reality," said McDougald in a PDSB press release. "The province needs to fund these students--to help them reach success."

Ward 6 & 11 Trustee Robert Crocker knows all about what that extra support means for students who need it, and for their peers and teachers. He saw its impact first-hand during 35 years as a secondary school teacher before retiring in 2012 and later being elected to the board.

Today, he says parents he's heard from are supportive, but often ask for more. Like McDougald, he puts the ball in the province's court to continue increasing support to help the board meet students' needs.

"Principals are bound by their TA allotment, just as they are by teacher or budget allocations," Crocker said. "I am confident that our human resources are distributed as fairly as they could possibly be. In the end, we are bound by a budget limited by what the provincial government allows."

While he believes more can be done, Crocker lauds the progress he saw as a teacher.

"I saw classroom TA support increase greatly. Indeed, I knew of no such thing in the 1970s," he said.

"I believe that in the 80s and 90s, we began serving more students whose personal challenges would have kept them out of regular schools in another age. We have also seen the addition of more and more special programs, and with them comes TA support. I am grateful for the assistance which TAs...provided my students in their learning."

Rehana Noori is another veteran of Peel Region's education system. She worked in Peel as a TA for 25 years. Noori said she is also glad to hear about the funding, but she has been disappointed by what she sees as the board's shift in emphasis away from one-on-one support for special needs students.

"In the last three or four years, [the board] started focusing on 'putting out fires', sending TAs to work with many students at once … They did not give us the opportunity to work [one-on-one] with special needs students like we used to."

Because each student is an individual with different needs, dedicating time to one-on-one support is crucial in allowing TAs to build a rapport and make a difference in students' lives, Noori says.

"It needs to be individualized … You need time. You can't just spend 20 to 25 minutes with a student."

Having worked at several schools throughout the region, Noori doesn't note any glaring inconsistencies of support across different schools. The need for more one-on-one support exists across Peel as a whole, she says.

Peel Superintendent of Education, Ted Byers, says the current process ensures available support is consistent with need at each school by directing it where it's needed.

"The Peel District School Board has a centralized process for gathering information and identifying student needs from all schools. The information provided by schools is reviewed centrally, and teaching assistant support is allocated to the schools to meet the identified needs," Byers says.

"Having a centralized process ensures there is consistency across the system, and that all student needs are reviewed. The review process is ongoing throughout the school year in order to meet changing needs and enrolment variations."

Byers sees TAs as an important part of the community of educators in Peel.

"The PDSB’s 2017-18 budget recognizes the importance of teaching assistants in the success of our students and we are pleased that additional funding exists to support additional staffing of these roles," he says.

Still, there is more to be done. A board-initiated study, conducted by an external researcher, looked at ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the PDSB's TA allocation practices. The board will launch a multi-year action plan in the new school year this September to implement key recommendations from that study, Byers says.

"The board is always looking to improve, and this is certainly true with our system supports for students with special needs."

While Noori says she hopes the board will consider more one-on-one support as one such improvement, there are things she likes about the support available in Peel. One of them is the strategy of "mainstream" education. This approach means special needs students can learn and play alongside their peers in regular classrooms, with TAs there to offer support through accommodations.

"I always found the regular students very empathetic toward the special needs students. [Befriending special needs students] was good for the regular students' self-esteem, to be able to help somebody … It benefited the special needs student as well, because he or she was able to make friends."

TAs themselves could benefit from funding, Noori says, to help them learn more about different disabilities and the specific needs they bring. She says this would be one step toward an empathetic approach that can build strong connections between TAs and students.

As for the province's role: Heather Irwin, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said via email the province is significantly increasing its contributions to meeting this need.

"In 2017-18, the Peel District School Board is projected to receive $1.7 billion through the ministry's Grants for Student Needs (GSN). This is an increase of $922.7 million (114.5%) since 2003."

"Funding for TAs is provided through a combination of ministry grants through the Grants for Student Needs (GSN) program," she said. This includes a grant which funds education assistants and classroom consultants who assist teachers in the classroom and who work with individual students. It also includes a Special Education Grant and other special purpose grants such as the Learning Opportunities Grant, which provides incremental funding for a range of programs to help "high-risk" students.

The PDSB's local priorities funding, by Irwin's estimates, "could support about 50 teachers and about 110 education workers board-wide."

She said it's the PDSB's responsibility to decide how best to use that funding.

"School boards are responsible to allocate funding for staffing and program delivery according to their local policies," Iwin said, "as they are in the best position to determine programs and supports required to meet the unique needs of the students."

In other words, the Ministry and the PDSB each put the ball in the other's court, but each is also willing to make contributions.

The funding for more TAs in the coming school year is pending approval by the Ministry of Education.

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