In­clu­sion re­port de­mands ac­tion now

The Queens County Advance - - OPINION - Jim Vib­ert, a jour­nal­ist and writer for longer than he cares to ad­mit, con­sulted or worked for five Nova Sco­tia gov­ern­ments. He now keeps a close and crit­i­cal eye on pro­vin­cial and re­gional pow­ers.

When chil­dren are afraid to go to school be­cause of the vi­o­lence they see or feel there, pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion is se­ri­ously un­der­mined.

That’s a rare un­der­state­ment in the re­port of the com­mis­sion on in­clu­sive ed­u­ca­tion, re­leased this week and broadly ac­cepted by the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment. Suc­cess­ful im­ple­men­ta­tion of the au­da­cious plan de­tailed in the re­port’s 124 pages will test the gov­ern­ment like noth­ing in a gen­er­a­tion.

The so­cial and eco­nomic in­equities of the prov­ince, the gaps in its men­tal health ser­vices, the dys­func­tion and dis­in­te­gra­tion of fam­i­lies, all walk through the doors of Nova Sco­tian schools ev­ery day, along with com­port­ment that comes from a sense of en­ti­tle­ment, pubescent hor­mones or youth­ful re­bel­lion.

Some will say, ‘you can’t ex­pect schools to deal with all those prob­lems,’ to which this com­mis­sion has re­sponded, ‘Why not? It’s got them.’

Teach­ers can’t teach, and stu­dents can’t learn when their class­rooms are evac­u­ated due to the threat of ag­gres­sive stu­dent be­hav­iour. A self-ev­i­dent ob­ser­va­tion shrewdly made.

This is a re­port that grabs and keeps the reader’s at­ten­tion. It clearly ar­tic­u­lates the prob­lems in our schools and pro­vides spe­cific rec­om­men­da­tions to re­spond to each one. The stakes are the fu­ture of at least a third of the kids in Nova Sco­tia, prob­a­bly more.

Now its over to the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment, and not just the ed­u­ca­tion depart­ment, but health, com­mu­nity ser­vices, labour and ad­vanced ed­u­ca­tion, the health au­thor­i­ties and oth­ers who need to work to­gether ef­fec­tively to get this right. And there be dragons.

The com­mis­sion­ers know that some of the most powerful and en­trenched bar­ri­ers to suc­cess are the so-called si­los that ex­ist in the gov­ern­ment and they al­most plead with politi­cians to force, and bu­reau­crats to do a “bet­ter job of pro­tect­ing the best in­ter­ests of chil­dren and youth in­stead of pro­tect­ing the poli­cies and pro­ce­dures of gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and in­sti­tu­tions.”

This three-women com­mis­sion knows its or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The com­mis­sion also knows there is a hefty price-tag at­tached to its plan – north of $70 mil­lion an­nu­ally when it is fully im­ple­mented – but that’s for a com­plete over­haul of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion. The Glaze re­port was an open­ing act. This is the fea­ture at­trac­tion, and if the prov­ince gets it right the ben­e­fits are dif­fi­cult to over­state. If it fum­bles, Nova Sco­tia could lose a gen­er­a­tion to schools paral­ysed by its poor ex­e­cu­tion.

If you’re say­ing, ‘hold on, isn’t this just about in­clu­sion, as in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion?’ you could read the re­port, or take it from here that all stu­dents’ are af­fected, and mak­ing schools in­clu­sive re­quires ad­dress­ing so­cial in­equity, valu­ing and pro­mot­ing di­ver­sity, break­ing down bar­ri­ers, “and cre­at­ing wel­com­ing schools and class­rooms that sup­port the full mem­ber­ship, par­tic­i­pa­tion, and cit­i­zen­ship of all learn­ers.”

Nova Sco­tia fi­nally has been a re­port that rec­og­nizes, and ex­plic­itly states that ed­u­ca­tion is about more than find­ing a job some­day. The com­mis­sion­ers didn’t bold-face “cit­i­zen­ship” for em­pha­sis but bless them for say­ing it.

In 1996, when in­clu­sive ed­u­ca­tion came to Nova Sco­tia, it was not de­signed to ac­com­mo­date the vol­ume of over­lap­ping aca­demic, be­havioural, and so­cial-emo­tional chal­lenges ex­pe­ri­enced by many stu­dents to­day. The grow­ing vol­ume, com­plex­ity, and sever­ity of th­ese stu­dents’ needs are over­whelm­ing schools and teach­ers.

Right now, a third of Nova Sco­tia’s 118,000 school kids have what the re­port un­for­tu­nately calls “ex­cep­tion­al­i­ties” which re­quire some de­gree of spe­cial at­ten­tion. Six per cent of stu­dents are on in­di­vid­ual pro­gram plans and another 26 per cent re­quire adap­tive mea­sures to cope and learn. That num­ber has been grow­ing steadily over the last five years.

The com­mis­sion told the gov­ern­ment to waste no time and have mea­sures in place by Septem­ber to ad­dress be­havioural and men­tal health is­sues.

Let’s up the ante. The re­port rec­om­mends the es­tab­lish­ment of an arms-length gov­ern­ing body to lead im­ple­men­ta­tion and pro­vide over­sight of the new in­clu­sion model. En­abling leg­is­la­tion to al­low the ap­point­ment of this body – a nine­mem­ber In­sti­tute for In­clu­sive Ed­u­ca­tion – should be in­tro­duced and passed be­fore the leg­is­la­ture ad­journs this spring. Surely a gov­ern­ment that can abol­ish school boards in the blink of an eye can move as quickly to get the pos­i­tive agenda mov­ing.

This re­port, mod­estly and ac­cu­rately ti­tled Stu­dents First, makes no men­tion of the fact that, at some point, Nova Sco­tia had to face facts. It may be too late for some of us, but it’s not to late for any of our kids.

Schools have the ca­pac­ity to change lives and, by so do­ing, change the eco­nomic and so­cial tra­jec­tory of the prov­ince. Now there’s a plan to make it hap­pen.

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