Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Are Alberta schools discriminating against Special Needs?

The number of children diagnosed with some kind of learning disability is growing every year and yet, ironically, it would seem that funding to provide support for these students is too often, falling short.

Just this week, in New York there is a family who has gone public with their story. The parents of 12-year-old Aiden Killoran are seeking a court order after their son was denied enrollment to their local school because he has Down Syndrome.

On a more local level, the Wray family of St. Albert, Alberta is seeking help after their son, Simon, who has Asperger’s syndrome was denied enrollment to a school that had previously accepted him and his brother but withdrew after learning that his funding would go to the St. Albert School District instead of the Edmonton School that he hoped to attend.

It is obvious that we are not the first nor the last to encounter such unnecessary fights on the school grounds. When we first learned that we would be moving to Edmonton, I immediately got on the phone with the Edmonton Public School district to find out what school would look like for both Ella and Jakob. If you have kept up with our story, you know that Ella and Jakob both attended French Immersion in Vancouver. The School was more than supportive and welcomed her without resistance. She had an aide with her at all times should she need a little extra help. She thrived. She did very well in the one-track French Immersion program and LOVED going to school. I knew that we were fortunate and things may not look the same in Edmonton, but I had no idea that they would be as bad as they are.

In April, because we had not physically moved to Edmonton yet, schools and the school board were fairly tight lipped as to whether they had space for our children. Fair enough. I waited until June when we had a signed lease and then got on the phone. I call three public French Immersion Schools and two Catholic French Immersion Schools to see if they had space for our children. All 3 public schools said they were full or did not offer French Immersion beyond grade one as it was a new program.

The Catholic Schools said they had room in grade three but when I brought up Ella the response was, “I would have to take money out of my budget to provide support for your daughter.” Not exactly the warm friendly greeting I was told to expect in Edmonton. I was disappointed. I was directed to Inclusion Alberta, an organization that advocates on behalf of children with disabilities but because schools had been closed for summer, progress was slow. Before the end of the school year however, I had registered both Jakob and Ella at their designated school, which is English and had them put on the waitlists for our neighborhood Catholic School, which is French Immersion.

When the schools reopened, we made the very difficult decision that, should a place not open up for Ella at JH Picard (the Catholic School) we would send Jakob anyway. It broke my heart that they would not be able to be in the same school, but given the cards in our hand it seemed like the best solution. I went and spoke with the English School and offered to talk to the teacher about strategies for teaching Ella effectively. When I asked what support would be given to Ella I was told that instead of having a one-to-one Educational Assistant, the class of 27 grade one students would have a class EA who would be shared among multiple children with disabilities for three hours a day. Keep in mind that these 27 children are coming from half-day kindergarten and while the teacher could not tell me what disabilities the other children have, chances ar,e there are others with undiagnosed disabilities or behavioral issues. This class size is absurd! No matter how good of a teacher you are, 27, 6 and 7 year olds is too many for one teacher. It compromises not only the education of each child but their safety as well and with Ella being prone to wander this situation is the worst possible. Furthermore, because Ella is not one to act out, I fear that she will be left to sit idle, whilst the teacher and the EA attend to the other children who demand attention. This, my friends, would be no more than a babysitting service.

In the midst of this bleak situation however, when we were at JH Picard today to register Jakob, I overhead a teacher say that she was teaching the 1/2 split. A split class?! This means that there is a grade one class and a split class and numbers are no longer an issue in regards to Ella’s enrollment at the school. When I asked the principal about the situation she said that she did not feel comfortable enrolling Ella without full time support in the class of around 24 students.  She said it did not seem like it would be beneficial for the school as a whole. I begged. I pleaded. I explained that having even .3 support in a smaller class, in a language she had already done full day kindergarten in, in the same school as her brother would be FAR better than what they were proposing at King Edward (her designated school). She was not convinced. She offered that perhaps, we could enroll Ella in kindergarten (half-day). In this case, the government would provide funding for .3 EA support and she could find enough in her budget for the other .2 to then provide full time support for the half day. BUT this would be a one-year solution and she could not make any guarantees for next year – this she was clear about. Pardon me, but if Ella didn’t have a disability we would not be having this conversation.

Should my daughter not be given fair access to a proper education?! Neither situation is adequate. For a province that prides itself on not only choice in education but also on inclusion, Alberta, you are failing miserably. The clock is ticking – school starts next Tuesday. Is it too much to ask that my daughter be able to continue in French Immersion in the same school as her brother? Is it too much to ask for a fair right to education? Is it too much to ask for the government to provide adequate funding to the schools for children with disabilities?

Not only that but what are we teaching our children?

Christian Killoran's words resonated with me,

"All of the virtues and attributes that we endeavour to teach our kids -- compassion, empathy, sympathy, kindness, all of those things are naturally elicited during the dynamic of interfacing with someone less fortunate than yourself," he said. "All of those typical kids are being denied of the opportunity to interface with (Ella) Aiden.

"Not only is he being deprived but all of the students are being deprived."

Friday, August 21, 2015

Looking for a little Oasis: Little Brick

When in doubt, find a cute coffee shop.

We've heard about this little gem from a couple of people and Little Brick did not disappoint. Nestled in the heart of the city along a quiet treelined street among picturesque homes resides this quaint little coffee shop. But unlike the homes on either side, which were clearly one of the first attempts at the "planned community" built in the 1990's, the building, now called Little Brick is the original 1903 home of J.B. Little who owned a thriving Brickyard in the area.

The great part about this space is that it can accommodate little people, in that there is ample space. As you walk around the house to the entrance of the cafe the garden beds are full of fresh herbs and tomatoes while picnic tables are spaced around the fully fenced yard and on the patio. Inside the house to the left is a little shop with carefully curated products that showcase the best of local artisan vendors as well as the best of the best in coffee. There is a wood burning fireplace with a few cafe style tables. If you go to the right upon entering however, there are additional rooms - it is a house after all.

We didn't order too much as we went primarily for a cup of coffee but when I saw that there was rice pudding on the menu I couldn't resist. And if it is any reflection of the care and innovation they put into their food, I am sure the lunch menu, which features items such as Duck Tartine and Arctic Char, is just as delicious.

 I have a feeling I will be returning to Little Brick again...and again...and probably again.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Lessons Learned From Hockey - take one.

He wanted to play ice hockey and what better place than the prairies. We figured it was something that he could look forward to in our move to Edmonton. Besides, I come from a hockey family – my grandpa played until he was 72 and the only reason he had to stop was because he took a puck to the ankle. My uncles play, my cousins play. One cousin even played in the WHL. I was excited and proud to hear he wanted to play but as we drove to the arena last night for the first day of conditioning camp my stomach tightened. I did not register him under false pretenses. He has taken some skating lessons, but is still shaky and skating is not something we have done much as a family. And, he is little. Furthermore, as much as daddy is a hockey fan, he is no hockey player. We practiced putting the gear on but I knew there were bound to be hiccups for both Jakob and us as parents.

I think we forget how many times children are faced with difficult, new and challenging situations. There is so much that they have to learn. As we become adults many of us opt out of those things. We learn we have a choice and so choose not to be uncomfortable, or try new things or persevere when things get tough. Many of us, dare I say, would not have made it through last night’s practice.

He fell. He fell many times. And yet, every time he got right back up. I watched. It was painful. My heart hurt for him because I knew how much courage and humility it took to be out on that ice with kids that had been already playing hockey for years.

I am so proud of him. He made it through and he didn’t even cry (I know I would have…in fact, I almost did). That being said, I did hear a quiver in his voice when we embraced off the ice and I asked him how it was. "Hard," he said.

Last night was a poignant reminder that even though there are times when things suck, and are down right HARD we need to just pick ourselves up and keep going. Jakob reminded me of this. And you know what? It will get better. Even in an hour, you could see his skating and control improve. And after all, isn't that what conditioning camp is for – to brush up on his skating skills and get comfortable on the ice again before playing with a team.

Practice, perseverance and determination - it sucks...but it’s the stuff full lives are made of.

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