Finding ways to communicate more effectively with parents and to better include education assistants in learning plans are two key recommendations of an ongoing inclusive education review in the New Westminster school district.
The review, which is being led by an advisory group including parents and staff, was launched in 2019 after a proposal by trustee Maya Russell. The school district set out to explore all aspects of support for students with diverse needs, looking at the needs of students, their families and staff members.
Bruce Cunnings, the school district’s director of instruction for learning services, gave a presentation to the school board at its May 26 meeting.
Cunnings noted the advisory group – with input from schools and from a variety of focus groups - has come up with a draft report providing 23 recommendations under five broad themes: student needs, authentic team approach, family support and engagement, high-quality professional learning, and expert knowledge of effective practices and district protocols.
He highlighted a couple of those recommendations for trustees, including one to create an easy-to-read parent handbook to include information about inclusive education and how parents can access services for their children.
Cunnings noted there is an existing parent handbook, but the advisory group heard from families that it isn’t sufficient.
“We heard very clearly from parents that we need to be more transparent. For parents, the ability to easily understand and navigate our school system to ensure that their students and children have the support they need is crucial,” he told trustees.
Cunnings also highlighted another key recommendation under the “authentic team approach” heading: that the district find ways to include education assistants and aboriginal support workers in relevant school-based team meetings and meetings about students’ individual education plans (IEPs).
Trustee Dee Beattie, who has working with the advisory group along with Russell, said the recommendation doesn’t go far enough to reflect the dissatisfaction that was expressed during a focus group meeting last fall with education assistants.
“The report that we got was that there was a lot of very unhappy EAs,” she said. “They were burnt out, overworked; they were generally unhappy. I’m kind of concerned that there isn’t really anything in here to address that.”
She said the language about including them in meetings must be made stronger.
“These are the front-line people; they absolutely have to be at IEP meetings,” she said. “I think we need to do a lot more work around fixing what is wrong with our EAs, and I’m not seeing enough of that in the report.”
Janet Kinneard, an EA at New Westminster Secondary School, spoke to the board about the issue.
She told trustees that, at the high school, the question of EAs not sitting in on meetings about student IEPs has been ongoing for many years.
“We’re often so overscheduled and understaffed at the high school … that we can’t be relieved during the day to come to an IEP meeting during the school hours because there’s not enough other staff to cover our students,” she said, adding that after-school meetings are often not possible for EAs, who in many cases have other jobs to go to.
The way it stands now, Kinneard said, there’s a lot of “creative juggling” going on to try to get EAs into meetings.
“I think it’s really vital that we are in the meetings, because otherwise a lot of discussion happens about what should be going on with the student without involving the person who is then responsible for applying that to the student,” she said.
Trustee Danielle Connelly lauded the “amazing work” that’s being done in local schools for students but cautioned that it may be hard for the district to improve the situation on its own.
“Until we get the funding that’s necessary to make it a priority to adequately fund and train EAs and staff in our district, it’s going to be a huge barrier to us being able to fulfil a lot of these recommendations,” she said. “Staff are doing so much with so little, and I’m so proud of everything that gets done in this district, but until, I think, we get more funding to support some of these initiatives, it’s really going to be a struggle.”
She said the school district should forward the final findings of the review to the Ministry of Education because many of the issues in the local district are common across B.C.
“This isn’t just New Westminster; this is a provincewide issue on a lot of these pieces,” she said.
School board chair Anita Ansari said everyone involved in the review has done “really valuable work” for the district.
“I guess one of the first pieces in fixing a problem is really identifying it,” she said. “And this was the part where I look forward to understanding and having a better appreciation of what the problem is, as we figure out what to do in the future to fix it and how to advocate for better supports if that’s something we can’t adequately provide and deal with on our own.”
The draft recommendations will now be revised and edited for a final report, which will also incorporate school-level data and information about health and safety incidents, along with recommendations regarding gifted learners.
That final report is scheduled to be presented at the June 23 board meeting, and implementation of the plans would begin for the coming school year.
Cunnings pointed out that, with all the current uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, it’s difficult to lay out a clear timeline for when all the next steps will happen.
“Definitely we have to be flexible and fluid moving forward,” he said.
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The draft review is available in the agenda package for the May 26 board meeting, which can be viewed online here.