I have been extremely busy this winter/spring with preparations for the Atlantic Conference on Learning Disabilities. With only three weeks to go to the event, I certainly have lots left to do, but I have put those duties aside for a few hours to focus on an issue that's a real concern - cuts to programs that support students with special needs. Enjoy the rant.
A few weeks ago, Dalhousie University announced they will be cutting a psychologist position within the Student Counselling office at the end of this academic year. This position supports Dal students who have learning disabilities, not just with the anxiety and depression they often deal with, but with the testing, support and academic planning they need to succeed. (And they can succeed with this kind of support in place!)
The cut was explained as a budget decision, a necessary move to compensate for the funding shortfall Dalhousie is facing this year. A Dal spokesperson says the students will be referred to private practices in the are if they need support. I have heard that the University will save approximately $40,000 by eliminating this position, but what's the real cost of this cut?
Students with learning disabilities need to overcome a number of barriers when it comes to education. Not only do they need to learn in a different way, they often first need to have their learning disability diagnosed. Without proper assessments and testing done by a psychologist, it's impossible to really know what's going on. Without knowledge of that learning disability, developing a strategy for dealing with it is impossible. Without a strategy for learning, achieving academic success is very difficult. Without success, self-esteem and confidence can slide, leading to anxiety and depression.
Having access to a psychologist at the campus where they are learning is the best way to support students. Diagnosis, learning strategies, personal support and treatment for associated mental health issues are necessary without putting additional barriers in the way. Asking students with learning disabilities to request outside support, get through a waiting period and then get to an off-site provider mean the number of students who actually get help are reduced. That means the chances for success for these students are reduced, effectively closing the door to post-secondary education for some.
More recently, the Halifax Regional School Board announced that the "Youth Pathways and Transitions" program would be ending this June. This program has been in place for seven years now, and has been supporting "at risk" students who have struggled in school. These students have learning disabilities, anxiety, behaviour issues and other challenges that make staying engaged in a regular classroom an almost insurmountable challenge.
Students and parents, along with other concerned citizens in the community are speaking up to try to save the YPT program. A group dedicated to saving the program has sprung up on Facebook, and this morning, a brave young woman told her story on Information Morning. The fact that she worked so hard to overcome her anxiety and appear on a provincially-broadcast radio show is a testament to the difference the program is making in her life. The School Board official who appeared on the program was quite sympathetic, but pointed the finger squarely at the province of Nova Scotia for not providing additional funding to support students with special needs. Again, the budget card trumped the needs of our most vulnerable students.
So what will happen to these 27 students? The School Board member says they will be transitioned back to the public school system, where supports are in place for them. But if those supports were adequate, why were they at YPT in the first place? I did not hear anything to reassure me that the school system has been able to add those additional supports over the last seven years. In fact, in a climate of cuts, the likelihood is that there are fewer supports than before.
That means many of these students will try, and likely fail, in a return to the public school system, if they bother going back at all. These are bright youth who are full of potential. Many former students have gone on to college or university. Why shouldn't this group, and other students in the future, receive the same opportunity?
OK, so this matters very much to people who are directly impacted by learning disabilities, and their families, but why should this matter to other citizens of our province? I recently listened to our Premier talk about the province's committment to educating adults in our province through their jobsHere plan. Part of this plan is to provide education and ensure adults have the skills they need to land good jobs in today's economy. The overall goal is to turn around the economic fortunes of our province - after 20 years of experiencing the lowest economic growth in the country - by getting people working. This plan goes hand-in-hand with adult literacy programs that have received generous support over the years, including a multi-province Adult Literacy campaign launched last fall.
By making short-term decisions to cut funding for the educational needs of our most vulnearable youth, we're ensuring that the need to fund programs like the ones above will continue long into the future. Wouldn't it be a better investment to support these youth NOW, to get them through secondary and post-secondary education NOW, rather than letting them drop out because we can't provide them with the programs they need and supporting them in more expensive programs in the future?
Rather than making easy cuts to important programs that support a small number of students, we should be looking at how we're delivering them. It has been reported that HRSB jas spent $650,000 per year on the Youth Pathways and Transitions program. Is that too much to support 27 students? Probably. Can we do it more cost effectively? Yes.
Bridgeway offers small class sizes, social supports and behaviour management to students with learning disabilities. Our students are eligible for Tuition Support Funding from the Department of Education in Nova Scotia. The base amount for each student who qualifies is $7100. The cost to the province for 27 students? About $191,000. Even at $11,500 per student (the full tuition cost at Bridgeway), 27 students could be educated and supported in the way they need to be supported for a full year for $310,000.
Because the numbers of students impacted by cuts are small, it would be easy to ignore the impact. But as citizens, I think it's important for us to stand up and support our most vulnerable. Please add your voice to this conversation!
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