Here’s a Basic Idea, Ontario: No. Child. Left. Behind.

boy (4)

Consider this simple (and all too common) scenario: Noah is a smart kid, interested in a range of subjects, and happy to share his passions and newly discovered knowledge with his friends. His main problem is that, every weekday, he goes to his neighbourhood public school and he is bored, feels unengaged, and – occasionally – has trouble understanding the concepts presented by his teacher, the way his teacher does it.

His parents reach out to the teacher and have a subsequent meeting with the school staff. They are told that Noah should try harder, perhaps pay more attention in class, improve his behaviour (as he is “disruptive” from time to time). Parents are also told that they may want to consider private tutoring if Noah’s academic performance doesn’t improve. When asking if the school could do more to help their son, they are told that the teacher has 24 other students, each of them with their own special needs – so, there’s not much the school can do, in fact.

Noah’s parents decide to pay for a private phycho-educational assessment, a rather expensive undertaking (they don’t have much choice, as the board has a years-long waiting list for psychological tests conducted through the school). They discover that Noah is a gifted child (no wonder he gets bored in the regular classroom!) who also has a learning disability (this condition prevents him for focussing on a particular subject for extended periods of time; he also finds it difficult to write down what the teacher says as quickly as other students).

Armed with this newly found information, Noah’s parents contact the school and ask for accommodations for their son (things such as potential enrolment in a special education program, assistive technology, additional support, etc.) They are shocked to discover that the school is trying to delay their son’s access to a specialized program (the formal identification and placement is an uphill battle!) and the resources he receives continue to be inadequate. After years of unsuccessful attempts to find a reasonable solution, they are seriously considering enrolling their son in private school or at least change public school boards.

Now, multiply this situation hundreds, if not thousands, of times across the school district. Substitute the child’s gender (applies equally to boys and girls), the student’s special needs (could be Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, deaf / hard of hearing, or simply special needs that don’t fall in any one particular box). In a more generic sense, approach it as the type of situation where the child’s learning needs are not fully met in school, while the system is shrugging off the concerns as immaterial.

To make things worse, the board is threatening to eliminate the very programs that would constitute the solution to Noah’s problem. To use a couple of concrete examples: in 2016, OCDSB proposed to phase out its gifted program for many of its students. Just a huge public outcry convinced OCDSB to put this decision on hold, initiate broader consultations on the subject, and launch a pilot project to improve approaches to learning in the regular classroom. Then, in late 2017, TDSB proposed to kill programs such as arts-based specialty schools, with little or no consultation. Once again, parents of students potentially affected, and other stakeholders, mobilized quickly and managed to convince TDSB that this would be a terrible decision.

One element that makes the latter examples particularly difficult to take is the fact that the proposed elimination of programs (critically important to the well-being of students with special needs!) is framed as increasing equity in those respective school districts. The argument is flawed on many levels, but the core counter-argument is: you cannot address inequity for some groups by directly causing harm to other groups.

It is our duty, collectively, to make sure that the schools provide the best possible service to all students, in an equitable manner. We know that districts such as OCDSB and TDSB need to do better for students from communities with lower socio-economic status, kids of all racial backgrounds, Indigenous children, newcomers to Canada, etc. This must be done quickly and effectively – no doubt about it! But in the process let’s also make sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater: existing specialized programs such as gifted, learning disabilities, arts-based schools, etc. should be supported *and* should be made more inclusive.

Let’s not force Noah to leave his OCDSB school (or TDSB, or any other public school board). Let’s instead create those conditions where we establish and improve specialized programs and educational approaches; make them appealing to students within and outside the district; and increase equity of access. This way we can truly live and breathe the principle No Child Left Behind.

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