Corina Parisien has been the trustee for the Upper Canada District School’s Ward 10 since December 2018. We decided to check in with Parisien to see how her first year as trustee was going — and to talk with her about special needs funding and services.

“I love it, being in my schools, meeting the students, it’s what I enjoy the most,” said Parisien. A trustee is an elected official who serves a school and represents a ward. Parisien was elected last year to represent ward 10, which includes seven schools and 2,500 students.

Parisien said she was surprised by the amount of learning the job requires. She says being on the policy committee, the audit committee and being the chair of the trustee innovation award committee means there is a lot to know. Taking on all these responsibilities, Parisien says a lot needed to be learned in addition to the responsibility of being a trustee. Another challenge is assisting everybody in a brief amount of time when the board of trustees meet once every two weeks.

“Some solutions take longer than others” Parisien said.  She says that parents want the finding of solutions to be faster.

“We want to set realistic expectations for parents in order to help them,” said Parisien.

She says that running for office is a good way to get involved in the community but not the only way. Parisien was an active member of the Vankleek Hill Collegiate Institute (VCI) parent council. She often volunteers for the Vankleek Hill Youth Curling Committee and has volunteered with the Vankleek Hill Fair and each year, with the Vankleek Hill Christmas Home Tour.

When it comes to being a trustee, Parisien says: “You’re not in it for the income, you’re truly in it for the passion and the concern you have for public education.”

When it comes to special needs children, Parisien says that support for the students is consistent and that needs are being met. She says teachers are always being trained to deal with new challenges. Educational assistants are added throughout the school year; this practice takes place very year, as the school board adjusts to the students it serves, she said.

Parisien invited the Upper Canada District School Board Superintendent of Schools, Special Education, Wellness — Ron Ferguson — to meet with The Review to talk more about special education needs and pilot projects related to special needs taking place in some schools.

Ferguson said that contrary to information that may have been circulating about a reduction of the number of educational assistants in schools, the opposite is true.

At the end of 2019, for the 2019-20 school year, the UCDSB had 432.5 school-based EA positions and was set to hire at least 30 more in the 2020. For the school year 2012-13, 301 school-based EAs were on staff at initial staffing. Since then, the number of EAs, has increased steadily, according to information provided to The Review, to 304 in 2013-2014, 353 in 2014-2015, 346 in 2015-2016, 351 in 2016-2017 (with a reduction in 15 minutes per day), 392 in 2017-2018 to 2017-2018, when 392 were hired at initial staffing.

Considering the full range of needs of students, Ferguson said that the number of EAs needed is based on decisions made per school, with involvement of the school principal to conduct needs assessments.

“We are trying to prepare all students to be successful. The aim is to be gradually reducing the need for support because we are trying to help our students become more independent,” Ferguson says.

At the outset of the school year, it is possible that the full complement of EAs was not in place, but with new students in place, more EAs are added during the year, based on need.

There could be confusion, according to Ferguson, because some individuals are moved from one school to another based on seniority and parents could feel that they have lost their EA.

Since becoming superintendent of special education last year, Ferguson says he realized there was a challenge when it came to meeting the needs of special-needs students. He has been traveling throughout the board jurisdiction, conducting a special education review, which had a parent involvement committee, trustees, teachers, the union and all of the stakeholders.

Completed in May 2019, the review noted that while there has been a decline in the overall student enrolment in the UCDSB of 630 students between 2014 and 2019, only minor fluctuations were noted in the number of UCDSB students accessing Special Education services. Overall about 25 per cent of the student population receives special education programs or support. The review also confirmed that the vast majority of students with special needs in the UCDSB are receiving instruction and are supported in regular classroom settings by the classroom teacher and educational assistants. The number of elementary students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) that were being provided Special Education services has increased from 110 to 310, with a rise from 10 to 150 secondary students. According to the report, during the 2018-2019 year, 6678 students in the Kindergarten to Grade 12 program had an Individual Education Plan (IEP), providing access to special education programs and services provided by the board at the school.

The number of elementary-aged students identified as having “learning disabilities” decreased from 750 to 380 and from 1180 to 850 at the secondary level between 2014 and 2019. (Note: in an earlier version of this article, a typo slipped through and 1180 was originally published as 11880.)

While integration of special-needs students has been an overall mission for some time now, Ferguson said that it became apparent that more options were needed to support these students.

“Power Up” pilot programs were launched in 15 schools. In recent times, Learning Resource teachers within the UCDSB who were formerly known as special education teachers, were refocused on supporting teachers. As special-needs students were integrated into regular classrooms, Learning Resource teachers were adding their support to the regular classroom teachers to help them with special-needs students in their classroom.

“But what we needed was to make their primary job to work with the students. They are the most qualified to work with them,” Ferguson said.

But back to “Power Up”, which could involve working with special-needs students in groups outside of the regular classroom. Ferguson compared it to pulling off the road for a time and then powering back up again.

“We are committed to inclusion, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t offer more options to our primary-time students.

A pilot project called “Power Up 2” offered its own lessons, according to Ferguson. “We kept the same model, but in the Power Up 2 classroom, the group had its own teacher. We currently have four Power Up classes in place,” Ferguson explained. These are not attached to the regular classroom. These are special education classes with two EAs assigned to them (along with a teacher).

It is perhaps the range of needs within students who have special needs that poses the greatest challenge; Ferguson said he knew more options were because of the feedback and requests from parents. “I knew more options were needed,” Ferguson said.

The feedback from the pilot projects has been “overwhelmingly positive” according to Ferguson. “We are getting more and more confident that we will probably expand these projects.

When asked about the “Section 23” class — a separate class at Pleasant Corners Public School, Ferguson said that class teacher aims to teach students the skills they need to get back into a home classrooms.

Teaching students how to be in their learning environment makes a lot of sense, according to Ferguson.

Kevlar in the classroom

Are some teachers wearing Kevlar (an extra-strong, bulletproof material)? Yes, says Ferguson, but it might not be as dramatic as you might think. He explains that young students may be prone to inappropriate responses, like pinching. Teachers have to be protected until they can teach a student new ways to respond.

“We have to protect our staff and this is a reality of inclusion,” says Ferguson.

Likewise, staff have to be patient with adaptive technologies, as does society.

“We might be criticized if we have a robot to feed a person, but to that person, it might help them feel more independent,” Ferguson points out.

Parents are experts about their children, Ferguson acknowledges.

But maybe parents aren’t experts in education, even if they have gone to school.

That said, Ferguson says the UCDSB works with parents. There can be disagreement and, “we present evidence, experience and training,” Ferguson says, adding that there is an appeal process which the board is required to provide to parents.