One in five students in Quebec has special needs and two English school boards are now speaking out and denouncing the lack of services from Quebec’s health care system.
While enrolment in most English schools is dropping, the number of special needs students is steadily increasing.
“The system is letting these children – these families – down,” said Lester B. Pearson School Board chair Suanne Stein Day. “The burden on these families is tremendous.”
At Parkdale Elementary School in Ville Saint-Laurent, at least 50 students have been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. It’s considered to be a model school for its success in integrating special needs students. From a special sensory room to closed classrooms, the school is able to meet the needs and learning abilities of various students.
“The first challenge is being creative trying to come up with solutions, especially when the money is not around,” said Marylène Perron, the school’s principal.
Under the education ministry’s guidelines, students with autism are entitled to an integration aide for at least two hours a day. There are also speech and occupational therapists but not nearly enough to meet the needs of every student.
“Our professionals are spread very thin,” Stein Day said. “They have to cover children in many schools across our territory, from Verdun to the Ontario border.”
One of the reasons enrolment of special needs students has increased is that children with autism and other learning disabilities now qualify for the English eligibility certificate. School boards deplored the fact the education ministry’s funding hasn’t kept up the growing population of special needs students.
“We estimate at Lester B. Pearson that on top of the $3.5 million specifically that we get for children with special needs, we spend an additional $4 million,” Stein Day said. “So we’re spending even double the funding that we’re getting.”
School boards are often forced to be creative and find new tools to help make up for services that students aren’t getting elsewhere.
“I think we need to have services with the health sector,” said Julie René de Cotret, assistant director of student services at the English Montreal School Board. “The schools can only do so much.”
According to experts, the key to helping children with severe special needs is to work together with families, teaching staff and healthcare workers. But without more money injected into social services, success stories in the public system may be fewer and far between
“Yes, I hear that some parents don’t have the services that they would like or they’re on a waiting list but we are working very hard,” René de Cotret said.