I would like to applaud the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies for its endorsement of Nova Scotia’s Tuition Support Program in its new report, “A Provincial Lifeline: Expanding the Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program” (www.aims.ca).
For the last eight years, TSP funding has indeed helped hundreds of students with learning disabilities access the specialized education they need at designated special education schools, including Bridgeway, Churchill Academy and Landmark East.
I wanted to share some information about why a school focused on the needs of students with learning disabilities is different than what is offered in the public school system, and why we should be a partner in the continuum of services offered to students in our province.
First, let me tell you a little bit about learning disabilities. A child with a learning disability has average to above-average intelligence. That’s important to remember because although they struggle with a specific skill or skills relating to listening, speaking, reading, writing or math, they are very aware that they are having more difficulty than those around them. This can lead to poor self-esteem, anxiety and depression.
In a public school classroom, these students are being supported by teachers who are trying their best, but may lack the training or be overextended trying to meet the needs of several other students. Although resource support is often made available, it’s frequently not enough, which means the students with learning disabilities fall further and further behind their peers.
At Bridgeway, we have teachers trained to help students with specific skills, and we keep our class student-teacher ratios to no larger than 8:1. Students are placed in classes by skill level, not by age or grade. Being surrounded by students who are at the same level is important to an individual’s confidence and skill development.
We also pay attention to social skills development, offering classes that help students communicate more effectively, develop and maintain friendships, and problem-solve.
Students in our school feel more included and more comfortable than they have ever felt in any other classroom. They also learn. We are accredited and monitored by the Nova Scotia Department of Education, and our students are meeting the curriculum outcomes that the department prescribes.
And we’re not a forever school. We bring students in, help them with intense support over a few years, then assist them with the transition back to the public school or post-secondary school system. Many of our students have gone on to complete their high school education, college or university, and are now working in careers and raising families.
Although we must charge tuition, we work very hard to keep our costs at a minimum. We are a registered charity, and fundraise year-round to keep our costs down and build our bursary and endowment funds. We are extremely thankful that most of our families are receiving tuition support funding from the province, but we are doing everything we can to make sure no child who needs our help is turned away.
We are also looking to expand our program to communities in other areas of Nova Scotia, starting with Sydney this September. But to help as many students as possible, we need to find a way to get students timely access to psycho-educational assessments. There are students across our province waiting several months to years for psychological testing to identify their learning disabilities.
We also need a common understanding around Individualized Program Plans (IPPs) in Nova Scotia. To qualify for tuition support funding, a student requires an IPP from a public school. However, interpretations of what an IPP is and how it should be used vary widely from school to school and district to district. A better understanding or, better yet, a change in the criteria for tuition support funding is needed.
We want to help eliminate those barriers, and we would be more than happy to work with parents, school board officials and the Department of Education to place a school in every district of our province.
We know that we cannot help every child with a special need, including children with autism or intellectual disabilities. That’s why we have extended our services into the communities through our Turning Tides Community Outreach division, offering programs for those students and others who need support with social skills development and tutoring.
While we are doing everything we can to help students with learning disabilities, we know there is more than can be done. Extending the Tuition Support Program and specialized schools for students with learning disabilities is a good first step, and we look forward to working with our partners in education to come up with more solutions that work for all students.
Lucinda Low is founder and executive director of Bridgeway Academy in Dartmouth.
Click here to read A Provincial Lifeline: Expanding the Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program.