Campbell River teachers overwhelmed by special needs pressures

The numbers of special needs students in Campbell River classrooms is “shocking” and “needs to be an election issue”

The numbers of special needs students in Campbell River classrooms is “shocking” and “needs to be an election issue” says Elaine Thompson, President of the Campbell River District Teachers’ Association.

Thompson says an association survey of teachers reveals that in Campbell River middle schools there are “at least 32 classes with four or more Individual Educational Plan (IEP) students. There are a significant number of classes with seven, eight and even nine IEP students. In our secondary schools, we have at least 16 classes with four or more IEPs. There are even classes with 10 or 11 IEP students.”

IEP students with designated special needs have disabilities of an intellectual, physical, sensory, emotional, or behavioural nature, or have a learning disability or exceptional gifts or talents. Thompson says before 2002, when the association bargained locally, there was specific and adequate language in the collective agreement to allow teachers to properly manage special needs students. In some classes there was a two-student limit.

School District 72 Superintendent Thomas Longridge says putting IEPs “at the front of a political discussion” does not do the issue credit.

“I understand the teachers want more resources and that is laudable, but this is a simplistic view of a complex challenge. Special needs students can be tremendous contributors in the classroom. The automatic assumption that they are a problem is unfair.”

Thompson says the government’s Bill 33 sets a limit of three IEPs in classes at all levels, although this limit was frequently breached over the years. However, under the current legislation, Bill 22, there are no limits on the numbers of special needs students allowed in classes.

“But those numbers do not tell the whole story,” the association president claims. “There are many more students that teachers refer to as ‘grey area students.’ These are students who are recognized by staff as having significant special needs, but because they are not designated there is no extra funding provided to the district to assist them.”

When these students are added into the mix the problem is seriously exacerbated. “In our elementary schools, we have 29 classes with a combined total of four or more designated and non-designated special needs students. In our middle schools, we have 36 such classes. In our secondary schools teachers who responded to the survey reported 33 classes with four or more combined designated/non-designated special needs. A few classes have up to 15 and even 20 students with special needs.”

Thompson says: “For teachers the additional workload is huge and the stress they incur as they try to meet everyone’s needs is often overwhelming. This needs to be an election issue and continue to be an issue long after the election is over. We who work in the system all feel that education is the single most important service provided to the public.”

North Island NDP MLA Claire Trevena says: “I’m not surprised the association wants to make this an election issue. It is very troubling to have so many special needs students going without the supports they need. And, it is very troubling that so many special needs students are going undiagnosed, that their needs are not being funded and that they are falling into the cracks.”

Thompson says teachers understand that the school board and senior administration would support efforts to alleviate these problems, but that they have a finite budget and everyone is doing the best they can in the current circumstances.

“Teachers strive to provide an optimal learning environment to allow all children to be successful and reach their potential. This is not possible in many cases.