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Strengthen limits on special-needs students: Victoria Teachers' Association

Feb 14 2012

The Victoria school board is under fire from teachers for urging the B.C. government to abolish legal limits on the numbers of special-needs students in classrooms.

The Greater Victoria Teachers' Association, which represents 1,600 teachers in the district, called on the board Monday to reverse its "disappointing" decision.

"We don't need to eliminate the limits, we need to make the limits stronger and ensure that there's funding so that you can actually meet them in most cases," association president Tara Ehrcke said in an interview.

The board, in a move that divided trustees, wants the B.C. government to repeal sections of the School Act that allow only three students with special needs per class.

The limits, which were introduced in 2006 as Bill 33, can be exceeded if a school principal consults with the teacher, and the superintendent and principal agree that classroom learning conditions are appropriate.

In a joint letter with the Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, the board argues that the limits are a form of discrimination.

"By its very nature, discrimination treats some of our children as inferior," says the letter, a copy of which was released Monday. "This practice cannot be permitted to continue."

The letter to Education Minister George Abbott was signed by board chairwoman Peg Orcherton and confederation president John Bird.

Orcherton said in a recent interview that the limits discriminate against special-needs students by limiting their access to classrooms.

"What do you do if there's an extra child?" she said. "Every child has a right to go to school in the public system, and limiting their access goes against their rights."

But Ehrcke said the board's and confederation's logic is flawed and misleading.

She said the very act of identifying a student as having special needs is a form of discrimination. But she said it's done to ensure they receive the additional support they need in order to meet their educational potential.

Ehrcke said class limits are no different. They are designed to ensure that teachers have enough time to devote to special-needs students and their individual education plans, she said. If there are too many such students in a class, the teacher has less time for each of them.

Ehrcke said that, while children have a right to attend their neighbourhood school, no child has an absolute right to be in a particular class. School administrators and teachers configure classes for all kinds of reasons - including finding a proper balance of boys and girls, she said.

If there are too many students with special needs in one class, the government should be required to hire an additional teacher and create a second class, she said. But lax rules mean that special-needs children are being "clustered" together in one class with an educational assistant as a way to save money, Ehrcke said.

"Ironically, when you think about what happens with this clustering, in effect it's re-segregation through other means."

But the Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils argues that classes can be made to work without singling out students with special needs. The confederation proposes establishing a "classroom support fund" in every school.

"A school would have resources to make all their classrooms work," Bird said.

"They would look for the needs of the students and the teacher and everybody involved and maybe what resources needed to be deployed and they would have some discretion."

The confederation suggests the money be drawn from a $165-million fund that Abbott announced last year to help schools deal with complex class organization issues over the next three years.

More details are expected in next week's budget.

lkines@timescolonist.com

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