Nichole McCarthy worries about her 10-year-old son’s future.
Tristen has a diagnosis of autism. He can’t read or write — McCarthy fears he will never at this rate. She said she attended Grade 5 for only half days and is falling further and further behind.
“He can’t just sit home half of the day, every day, while all the other kids are getting instructions and schooling. …This is just going to continue snowballing. I’m worried for him,” the Grand Falls mother said.
“I’m not going to be here forever to take care of him. I’m trying to prepare him for the future.”
McCarthy said her son doesn’t have a full-time education assistant and is a “bolter.” She said he runs away when he can’t cope with a stressful situation. He’s even run away from school and been intercepted by the police.
She said he is entitled to an education and to the resources needed to make sure he gets one.
“He’s put in a classroom with all the other children and is expected to sit in a desk all day and do the same things all the other children are doing, which he cannot,” said McCarthy.
For former education minister Dominic Cardy, Tristen’s story is a familiar one.
“The problem we have right now is that you’ve got schools that are massively overstretched in terms of the resources they need to be able to look after kids with behavioral issues,” said Cardy.
“We’ve got kids on the [autism] spectrum who are, through no fault of their own, acting out because they don’t have the regulatory mechanisms to be able to control that behavior.”
Coupled with what Cardy calls “a serious decline in the respect that’s shown to teachers and the ability that teachers have to control their classrooms,” he said it means New Brunswick has “settled for rhetorical inclusion.”
“And so you end up with this in-between, where we pretend that we have a fully inclusive classroom.”
Cardy said the students may be together in the same classroom, but the teachers haven’t been given the tools to address each child’s needs.
“I hear from teachers all the time about how they can’t focus on the kids who’ve got real issues because they’re just trying to keep control in their classroom. That often means they can’t even really teach.”
Cardy said that’s one of the factors that’s led to declining standards and poor student performance over the years.
Schools in an ‘incredibly difficult’ situation
Cardy said changes must be made to inclusion, starting with how inclusion is defined.
He said a letter was sent out at the beginning of the school year, “making it clear that we defined inclusion as being inclusion within the school, not the classroom.”
That, he said, meant that all students would be included in the classroom until issues of a single student impacted the education of the rest of the class. At that point, a student could be immediately removed and dealt with in another part of the school.
Cardy said it was part of a series of reforms that were planned for this year and next.
The right of the child is to be with their peers and within the classroom.– Sarah Wagner, Inclusion NB
When Cardy quit his job as education minister in October, the department was starting to implement some of those changes, and he’s hopeful the reforms will continue to roll out.
The Department of Education was asked about the memo and the status of the changes to inclusion. While a spokesperson acknowledged the memo, no details were provided, including whether the change of focus would go ahead.
CBC requested an interview with Education Minister Bill Hogan but was told he was not available.
On Tuesday, when he tabled the education budget in the legislature, Hogan said, “in certain parts of the province, the impression has been left that you need to have a student in your class, keep them in the class no matter what, and that’s simply not the case.”
He said inclusion “never meant — nor does it mean today — every student in every class 100 per cent of the time.”
Hogan said the department will work with the districts to make sure everyone understands what the policy means. He also said the department is allocating $30.8 million for the 2023-24 school year to improve inclusion.
However, Sarah Wagner, executive director of Inclusion NB, said inclusion should mean every student, all the time, without exception.
“The right of the child is to be with their peers and within the classroom,” she said. “The way we need to look at it is — what supports are required to make it successful.”
Wagner said it’s up to the province to provide the proper resources to make inclusion work for all students. She said she’s hopeful that a recent increase to the education budget will be used effectively to “bring more hands around the table with qualified professionals to support the diverse needs of New Brunswick students.”
She said educators need more training and resources, including more resource teachers, occupational therapists, and speech-language therapists to support the needs of diverse learners. Or, she said, smaller class sizes or “team teaching” models.
“We need to deploy the resources effectively to support that, so teachers can teach,” said Wagner.
‘I want my kids to have an education’
Despite inclusion, McCarthy said the school system had failed to provide the resources needed to keep her son in school and learning along with his peers.
She said Tristen, like other children, loves Lego and Play-Doh and video games, but she also knows that she will likely continue to have challenges when it comes to regulating her emotions.
She wants a full time assistant assigned to Tristen, but even with an increased budget she worries that isn’t going to happen.
“I just want what every other mother wants. I want my kids to have an education and I want my kids to be safe.”