Okanagan Skaha teachers divided over ministry requirements

The inclusion of every student in School District 67 is a common goal, but there’s no consensus over the best approach.

School District 67 Okanagan Skaha

School District 67 Okanagan Skaha

The inclusion of every student in School District 67 is a common goal, but there’s no consensus over the best approach.

Every school and school board in the province is required by the Ministry of Education to develop plans which will improve learning outcomes.

“It’s a lot of work for the teachers,” said Leslea Woodward, president of the Okanagan Skaha Teacher’s Union. “Teachers believe in inclusion and success for all children; there are so many benefits to it. The problem is, the special needs teacher is expected to go and teach with the regular teacher. Teachers aren’t against doing anything that’s to the benefit of kids, but they’re concerned when there’s not enough resources in place. There’s not enough special needs teachers; there’s not enough support systems in place for kids who do have special needs – and we need those supports in the classroom.”

Woodward said teachers are still divided over whether or not it’s the better way. The Okanagan-Skaha district has defined three areas where improvement can be made — literacy, numeracy and school completion. Every school under its umbrella must work to achieve at least one of those goals, but the district doesn’t micromanage – “individual schools are free to select how they go about pursing those goals,” said Don MacIntyre, director of education for SD67.

In the development of an improved approach, the district has come up with a new a framework for response when it’s time to intervene with a student.

“The framework of response to intervention is the idea that keeping as many kids in their general enrolment classroom as often as possible gives them the best opportunity for success, and that’s what we call inclusion,” MacIntyre said.

In decades past, he said, students with special needs were often removed from general enrolment classrooms and educated separately by a specialized teacher – whether periodically or regularly.

“But of course now we understand through significant research over time, is that wherever possible, it’s best to keep those kids included in general enrolment classrooms,” said MacIntyre.

Schools in SD67 will have to work towards that goal without any extra staff or funding, but new tools available will be accessible for school faculties.

“Part of my responsibility is to track the research and make sure that we’re engaging in evidence-based practice, so that we’re not just randomly trying things to see what’s going to result in improvements for kids,” said MacIntyre.

The approach that KVR Middle School has decided to take on is to send a learning support teacher into a general classroom, thereby giving the teacher assistance in support students with different needs.

“Some say OK great it’ll work, others say no we still need that individual one-on-one. The biggest concern is that there’s still not enough support services and teachers.”

“We’re trying to take advantage of the expertise that’s already resident in the district,” MacIntyre said. “So when we decide what that model of inclusion would look like, there are a number of authors that schools can access that have done research studies about what methodology has a tendency to work best. There are hundreds in any one area so I don’t get prescriptive with it. I let teachers know who the prominent authors are if they want to research in a particular area, and then they are free to choose how they want to pursue that.”

The 2014-2015 school year is the pilot year for the new approach being laid out by the district. Each school can experiment with different aspects of the School Improvement Plan this year, and its implementation will become mandatory by the start of next school year.

“We’re excited about the changes because it starts to take away some of the more superficial objective and gives students and teachers a chance to do what we call deeper learning —getting into more sophisticated types of learning such as critical thinking,” said MacIntyre.

He said the district’s focus is to require less memorization of details and fact and encourage more creative thinking and discussion, “which are the kind of skills that we know kids need when they leave the school system.”