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Its goal is to provide all students at the Toronto District School Board with access to the programs and supports they need in order to learn.
But some parents fear the TDSB’s enhancing equity task force could do the opposite for pupils who have learning disabilities, are in gifted programs or have special needs.
A draft report from the task force released quietly last month provoked early backlash because of a proposal to phase out arts-based specialty schools and in turn boost arts and other enriched programs throughout the city.
In the last few weeks, recommendations have also raised the hackles of families with children in gifted and other special education programs.
“We are shocked by the recommendations,” says Shellie Suter, chair of the learning disabilities parent group at Northern Secondary School, one of the city’s largest high schools, which has about 400 students in its gifted program and another 400 with learning disabilities.
Those programs “have created equity for learning to occur across diverse student populations,” says Suter, who has a son in Grade 11.
“Parents didn’t think the TDSB’s push toward more equity would remove it from certain groups of students.”
Concerns from Suter and other Northern Secondary parents were among the 5,000 submissions received by the TDSB in the last few weeks about the draft equity report, written by an outside consultant following a year of discussions with students, staff, parents and the community. The goal of the task force is to dismantle barriers for students regardless of race, socio-economic background or special needs and ensure they have equal access to programs. The deadline for online comments was Monday.
A final report that will incorporate the feedback is now in the works and will be presented to trustees on Dec. 13. The board won’t start making decisions on whether to adopt it until the new year, when parents will have more opportunities to weigh in.
But in a news release this week, the worried Northern parents said initial proposals discriminate against groups of students with specific learning needs and argue that key elements — from plans to integrate special education students into regular classrooms to ending academic streaming — will do more harm than good and “have far-reaching implications.”
The concerns, also circulating on social media and in an online petition, prompted the TDSB to publish clarifications on its website after the deadline for public comments.
Among them, the board reiterated TDSB director John Malloy’s earlier promise that specialty arts-based schools and specialized programs such as the TOPS science program or international baccalaureate will not be closed.
The website also said special education and gifted programs will continue to be offered, and that eliminating the applied stream in Grade 9 would not impact those students, who would receive additional support in academic classes.
In an interview with the Star earlier this month, Malloy stressed the board is committed to offering families choices. That includes a range of options, from integrated classes with extra supports to special education classrooms and schools for parents who feel their children do better in those environments.
“We are not interested in an either-or approach,” Malloy told the Star. Instead, there has to be both.
“The word inclusive, to me, means we are providing the best place possible for the student,” he said, along with the opportunity for more students to get what they need from their community schools.
“I would like to engage families differently and allow them to have a say in what that is.”
The worries expressed by many parents also reflect a larger debate underway as schools across the country move towards an inclusive education model that includes learners of all kinds in regular classrooms.
While plenty of parents and educators agree with the principle of inclusion, many in Toronto and elsewhere complain the reality has been children being integrated into mainstream classes without the resources they need to learn, putting them at risk.
That concern, and suspicion that school boards see inclusive education as a way to cut costs, have made it a hot-button issue.
Malloy says the TDSB has no plans to decrease supports.
“No dollars will be taken away from students with special needs based on our trying to be more inclusive,” he said. “However, it means using our resources differently.”
Diana Goldie says she worries the needs of her daughter Elizabeth, in Grade 9 at Northern Secondary, would be lost if she moved to a regular classroom from her small class of 15 students with learning disabilities who get extra support in core subjects.
“You can’t cookie-cutter our children into learning,” she said.
Elizabeth, 14, says she’s also apprehensive and uncertain about changes proposed in the draft.
“I need extra help in most of my classes and if I don’t get the help I need, I worry I’m not going to be successful,” she says.
Parent Helen Aubrey says her son attends Northern for the same program, and she worries that without that option he will have to return to his home school. It would mean a difficult transition and a lot of anxiety for a student who already struggles, she said.