I am writing in response to the Feb. 23 article regarding Paul Bennett’s recent report for AIMS, recommending expansion of the Tuition Support Program.
I am vice-chair of the Equal Education Association of Nova Scotia, which has long advocated the kind of changes that Mr. Bennett recommends in his report. However, I am writing as a parent of a child whose life was dramatically changed by the tuition support program. Our son Timothy has a severe learning disability.
Learning disabilities are called the invisible disabilities because they are not readily apparent in the same way as someone in a wheelchair, and so often get overlooked. They also do not mean that the child is stupid; they affect individuals of average to above-average intelligence, who just learn in a different way and, as such, are able to be productive members of society if their disability is addressed in a proper way.
Our son’s learning disability was apparent before he started school. He received a tremendous level of support throughout elementary school. By the time he was in Grade 5, he was in the SLD (severe learning disability) program, receiving one-on-one instruction from an SLD teacher three times a week. He was also pulled out of class twice a day for learning centre, one-on-one in the morning and group in the afternoon. He was also assigned an EPA in the classroom for four hours per week.
His principal at the time told us his extra supports were costing the school in the range of $25,000 to $30,000 per year over and above what it cost for basic classroom instruction.
The supports that Timothy received were not very successful, and not very inclusive. He was spending more than half his school day outside the classroom, and his peers saw him as different or “special.” He once told me, in tears, “Dad, I don’t want to be special, I just want to be the same as everyone else.”
At the end of Grade 7, he was still only reading and writing at an early Grade 1 level. Having exhausted its resources, the school pulled SLD support. He was to go into Grade 8 with only limited resource support. As parents, we didn’t know what to do. If we kept Timothy in the public system, this extremely bright boy would likely drop out of school, and have little in his future other than a minimum-wage job or social assistance.
On the advice of his SLD teacher, we applied for the Tuition Support Program. Our application for the TSP was returned because we missed the Feb. 15 deadline by one week. We were determined that our son would have a future, so we bit the bullet, remortgaged our home, and enrolled Timothy in Bridgeway Academy.
This was a life-changing decision. Timothy flourished at Bridgeway. It was an extremely inclusive environment, teaching Timothy in ways that he learned. He was surrounded by others who learned the same way. He no longer felt different, he was recognized for the bright individual he was.
After his first year, we applied again to the TSP program and received the transfer of the basic funding unit. This enabled Timothy to continue at Bridgeway until high school graduation. In June 2010, we saw a day that a few years before we thought was impossible: Our son graduated with honours in a regular academic program. Bridgeway made the impossible possible.
Timothy is currently enrolled in the pipe trades program at NSCC and will be graduating in May as a plumber/pipefitter. This extremely bright boy, who was abandoned by the public school system, was a bronze medallist in the 2011 Nova Scotia skills competition for skilled trades. Because of the Tuition Support Program and Bridgeway Academy, Timothy will be a successful, contributing member of society. He will be working hard and paying taxes, instead of being supported by the public welfare system. This low-cost program pays off in big ways.
It is unfortunate that the TSP is not available to everyone who needs it, in all areas of the province. Another concern is that the present government has capped it at a maximum of four years, rather than looking at how long the student needs it. Learning disabilities are lifelong, and many students enter the program more than four years behind.
This truly is a life-changing program. In a time of fiscal restraint, the government should look hard at expanding this program that both delivers results and saves the taxpayers money.
Kevin Burrell lives in Bedford.
Click here to read A Provincial Lifeline: Expanding the Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program.