Ponoka school divisions show imbalance in students with learning needs enrolment

How Wolf Creek Public Schools and STAR Catholic consider a student as resident differs

School divisions in the area appear to have an imbalance in how students with special needs get enrolled.

Alberta Education requires that all schools provide flexible and inclusive learning environments for all students, which includes those with severe disabilities. That means if a student has special needs, the school cannot necessarily disallow them from education within the school.

How a student gets enrolled, however, may depend on the religion they follow.

In recent years, Wolf Creek Public Schools (WCPS) has seen increased enrolment of students with special learning needs. Of the approximately 7,300 students, about 14 per cent are students considered to be with the inclusive learning category.

STAR (St. Thomas Aquinas Roman) Catholic, with a student population of about 4,000, sits at around eight per cent.

Recently WCPS has argued that the funding model for inclusive learning is outdated, a sentiment echoed by STAR Catholic representatives. A further look into how the two divisions determine funding shows it’s not a black and white calculation.

For the current school year, STAR Catholic received just under $5 million from the province. WCPS received $5.7 million and spent an additional $6 million to meet service needs.

WCPS also has the Wolf Creek Academy in Lacombe that is a separate program for students. The division also has some students (about $160,000 spent) who attend programming in Red Deer as there are no program supports for them at WCPS.

“With inclusion there is a lot of support that’s needed for teachers and for classrooms and for schools and for parents to ensure that students are programmed appropriately,” said WCPS superintendent Jayson Lovell.

To support that endeavour, there are inclusion coaches (teachers) within the schools (WCPS spent $1.6 million last year) who support the different programming needs for students.

There are also social workers within schools who provide additional support to inclusive learning students. Lovell said social workers have other duties to assist all students in a school. WCPS spent about $1.5 million on social workers.

There are specific codes provided by Alberta Education that school divisions use for students with severe disabilities, however, there are other areas where a division has some leeway. What that means is school divisions have different methods, and different results, when determining if a student has inclusive learning needs.

Lovell argues that WCPS follows these guidelines as closely as possible.

“We have a very thorough and systematic impact assessment process,” said Lovell.

There are four tiers for students with Tier 4 being the highest need and Tier 1 being students who virtually have no needs at all, explained Lovell. “We base that system on the information that we are provided by from Alberta Education and the expectation around programming,” said Lovell.

Once those needs are assessed, WCPS then determines how much money goes to students with inclusive learning needs, typically in the Tier 3 and 4 areas, he added.

Looking at STAR Catholic processes

When it comes to STAR Catholic, the division has its own method to determine needs, with one additional factor: If a student or a family member of a student has been baptized.

STAR’s administrative procedure (AP) 300 – student residency and admissions first defines a resident student as being baptized as Catholic or has at least one parent who is baptized as Catholic. Students outside of that definition are dependent on if the programming is available.

Separate religious education is considered a constitutional right and in Alberta, about one third of the school divisions are Catholic.

STAR’s assistant superintendent Kevin Booth and Michelle Symes, director of student services, provided some clarification on the process the division follows with regard to inclusive learning.

Booth says the division has recently changed how it determines if a student falls under inclusive learning, adding that it’s a rather fluid model. “It’s much more trying to identify the kids who need help,” said Booth.

If a student falls outside of that residency determination, the principal and superintendent must determine if there are sufficient resources, however, it’s believed a division-wide evaluation takes place. Those resources include programming, staffing and classroom space. AP 302 does provide tools for students who fall within STAR’s residency if there is no programming available, however, there hasn’t been any students who have needed that service.

“After September 30th, the principal will contact the director of student services to determine availability of funding to support exceptional learning needs prior to enrolment,” states the procedure.

For Booth, it’s about caring for the student. “When we accept the student, we accept the families.”

“We’ve not felt that we’ve ever been in a situation where we can’t support a student with special needs.” he added.

Booth agrees with Lovell that Alberta Education’s funding model does need to change.

“The complex needs (of students) that are coming into our schools and into our classrooms are really pressing.”

Symes added that the students who do have inclusive learning needs take part in the same learning as their peers, but they may have additional educational assistant supports.

While there has been some worry from Alberta parents that their children will not get the same quality of education with this inclusive learning model, Booth feels it’s a better situation than some decades ago where students were completely separated.

“I think we’re raising a generation of kids that are more empathetic,” said Booth.

Lovell explained that cuts to WCPS’s learning supports mean certain priorities with regard to service levels will need to be revisited.

This story was edited to clarify enrolment over inclusive learning.

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