Not long ago, a once-struggling Nova Scotian student with learning disabilities, now attending Dartmouth’s Bridgeway Academy, was asked how enrolling in a specialized, intensive school program has changed her life. She replied, in matter-of-fact fashion: “For the first time, I feel I belong.” Now that is effective inclusion.
Somewhere between two and four per cent of Nova Scotia’s public school students, numbering from 2,500 to 5,000, are struggling at school with serious learning challenges. The case has been well made elsewhere for the need to continue to enhance and expand our classroom supports for these children.
Cookie-cutter approaches to educating P-12 students, however, can be a recipe for disaster, especially for special-needs kids. Not every child with special needs can succeed in a “regular” school, regardless of the supports we can make available to them. What we need is an effective, sustainable, continuum of education options that are suited to each individual child and family circumstance.
Recent learning-disabled education research, conducted by Calgary Learning Centre expert Anne Price in 2009 for the Nova Scotia Education Department, supports a provincial service model offering a variety of learning support programs, including special placements in alternate school settings. Price and her associate Mary Cole clearly identify the limits of inclusion as a whole system approach and claim that “best practice is not dependent upon a particular model of service delivery.”
Surveying a range of models on the continuum from most segregated to most inclusive, Price and Cole reach some significant conclusions: Effective practice is more important than location; students with learning disorders require more time to learn; explicit and intensive instruction is critical; certain instructional practices are much easier in some settings; and more research is needed to connect research with placement decisions. Instead of accepting the theory that inclusion is good for every learning-disabled student, the focus should be on determining “who learns what best where.” In short, specialized schools should be recognized as one option in the full continuum of service.
Nova Scotia’s Tuition Support Program is a real breakthrough, providing a more diverse range of families with access to a vitally important, research-proven alternative school option. The TSP, initiated in September 2004, provides an option for students with special needs who cannot be served at their local public school.
The TSP provides funding which covers most of the tuition costs to attend one of the three designated special-education private schools (DSEPS): Bridgeway Academy and Churchill Academy, both co-educational day schools in Dartmouth; and Landmark East, a co-educational boarding school in Wolfville (Bridgeway also has a satellite campus in Truro). A supplemental needs-based fund is also available to cover the remaining tuition gap if necessary.
Providing tuition subsidies in the form of per-student grants (or vouchers) has proven to be successful in meeting the unique special-education needs of a hard-to-serve student population. Yet the sad reality is that only 165 out of the 124,500 students in the province’s Primary to Grade 12 schools, and those confined to the greater Halifax-Truro region, have tax-supported access to a school program like that offered at Bridgeway Academy.
Furthermore, the TSP was explicitly intended for short-term purposes and works on the assumption that students can eventually be successfully “transitioned” back into the regular system, another erroneous one-size-fits-all assumption.
Expanding the TSP is not a replacement for enhanced supports in “mainstream” classrooms, but a necessary complement to those enhancements. The TSP is a sustainable, low-cost program that works for these learning-disabled kids — we know this, so let’s make it available provincewide.
My recent report for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies calls for a robust provincial policy initiative that embraces the Bridgeway model as part of a fully supported continuum of effective education for special-needs kids. It’s time to extend the TSP educational lifeline to hundreds of students, and particularly those outside the greater Halifax-Truro region currently marginalized in the regular, under-serviced classrooms.
Rescuing these special-needs students and expanding the TSP should be a higher priority in the NDP government’s Kids & Learning First school reform agenda.
Paul W. Bennett, director of Schoolhouse Consulting and adjunct professor of education at Saint Mary’s University, is the author of the AIMS research report calling for expansion of Nova Scotia’s Tuition Support Program. The report is available online at http://aims.wpengine.com/en/home/library/details.aspx/3326.