Last year Karen Copeland hit a breaking point when her 13-year-old son was put on a waiting list for the educational support he needed. Education assistants, who provide support to students with special needs, were scaled back at his Abbotsford, B.C., public school – so she felt her best option was to pull him out.
"The teacher was wonderful, but she was limited because the caseload was so high," Ms. Copeland explains. "They just didn't have the funding to support him in the way that he needed." She enrolled her son in a public distance learning school, where he receives an individual learning program for his learning disability.
On Jan. 14, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it will hear an appeal from the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) regarding classroom sizes, composition of students and the ratio of specialist teachers in their contract with the Ministry of Education. The ruling opens a window for teachers in British Columbia who currently cannot legally negotiate these terms as part of their labour contracts.
The legal battle between the B.C. government and BCTF could have national implications for the two-decade-long move toward inclusion: the principle, championed by disability advocates, that all children are entitled to equitable access to education in regular public-school classrooms. While provincial school systems across the country have long committed to inclusion, financially strapped systems are forced to compromise.
This has led many Canadian parents, such as Ms. Copeland, who is also active with the advocacy group BC Parents of Special Needs Children, to turn to alternative schooling options such as distance education centres. In a survey of 236 parents of children with special needs, 51 per cent removed them from the public system, according to the group.
These numbers mirror the trend elsewhere in the country. In 2014, People for Education held a survey of 1,349 Ontario schools, revealing that about half of elementary principals have told students with special needs to stay home from school for all or some of the day, in part because there's not enough help for them. In a report published the same year, People for Education found the province's elementary schools have an average of 37 students with special education needs per special education teacher.
"The misconception a lot of times is that if we just put kids with disabilities in the classroom, that's inclusion. Inclusion is based on the principle of equity, justice and the understanding that all kids belong," says Jacqueline Specht, an associate professor in the areas of educational psychology and special education at the University of Western Ontario, and director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education.
Leah Samson, an elementary-school teacher on Vancouver Island, struggles with large classroom sizes, often in mixed-grade classes, but still pushes to include more special-needs students.
"Inclusion is not only beneficial for the special needs student, but also for other students in the class. Having that exposure to other kids, it teaches them it's okay if they are struggling with something. It's good for their character building."
For Ms.Copeland, the decision to move away from the public systems meant individualized support for her son. She stays at home with him full-time, where he receives an individualized study plan from Fraser Valley Distance Education School.
Other parents are opting for the private-school system. Tracy Humphreys transferred her children Max, 13, and Samantha, 9, both diagnosed with autism, into a private school after she began to see their self-esteem suffering. She spends about $13,000 a year on tuition.
"Some of the challenges carry over," says Ms. Humphreys, "but they're completely different kids; they are confident and excited about school." She credits more personalized attention and a learning environment tailored to her children's needs to the improvements.
But support workers with specialized training to tailor to children's individual needs may not be available.
Johanne Lemaire's Grade 6 son has been diagnosed with ADHD and suffers from anxiety and depression. All of this led to suicidal thoughts in 2014. His anxiety is so severe that he often does not want to go to school. But even his individual education plan requires his attendance. Despite being unhappy with their current situation, Ms. Lemaire says she has limited options. There is only one other francophone school in her community.
"We need an educational assistant trained in mental health," echoes Karen Walsh, a teacher whose son also suffers from mental health disorders. "These kids get labelled as behaviour kids, but the behaviour is being driven by the mental illness. If you dig in, it's that their brain is functioning at a very different level."
Still, public-school teachers are doing what they can. A parent who wouldn't disclose the name, age, or gender of her child due to fears of losing their current support staff explained that teachers often go out of their way to help children who don't have adequate resources.
Parents have also pooled support systems to help compensate for the lack of financial resources in schools. "For several years, our parents' advisory council was led by parents, most of them parents of non-special-needs children, who were very dedicated to inclusion," says the same parent. "They raised the money to get a rubberized surface on the school playground, they set aside funds to provide transportation for special-needs kids to participate in out trips."
In Abbotsford, a local action group formed to help parents navigate policies and procedures of the school system, and also hold schools to account.
"I think parents want their kids to be meaningfully included in their schools," says Ms. Copeland. "But that inclusion is going to look differently; it's not a one-size-fits-all."
And Dr. Specht adds that inclusiveness benefits all students.
"The reason we used to segregate students is that we used to think that we were served better by leaving all the 'typical' kids together. What we've realized over the years is that there is no such thing as the typical kid," she says.
"We all benefit from inclusion because it helps us value diversity. If we segregate people by telling them that because of their learning problems they belong in special classrooms, we're telling them and everybody else that they don't belong."