I have three kids. My eldest two are ‘typically developing’ kids. When we lived in Winnipeg, I sent them to the school down the street. It was a Hebrew school with an English stream. Then when we moved back to Edmonton, I sent them to the community school close to our house. I then got remarried, and moved into a new neighbourhood with my new husband. Someone told us the elementary/junior high school was ‘good’ so we sent them there. They went to the feeder high school. Then they both graduated. That’s the end of their school story. My poor eldest kids were shipped down the road to the school of convenience without much thought from their mother.
The school system calls our third, and youngest kid, ‘coded.’ Or ‘funded.’ Or ‘with designation.’ Or ‘special needs.’ Or a ‘diverse learner.’ Or a ‘student with a difference.’ We just call him Aaron.
School for our kid who happens to have Down syndrome is infinitely more complicated. With my other two kids, there was an assumption that I sent them to school to be safe, be taken care of, and to learn. And that’s what ended up happening. It wasn’t perfect, but it was fine. With Aaron, these assumptions do not exist. Having a kid with a disability in a regular school and regular program is exceptional here in Alberta. We have special education programs and schools in this province. Inclusion is not a given. Families are often forced out of community school settings and strongly encouraged to look at special education options. They are told: we don’t have enough support for your child. This isn’t a good fit for them. Go somewhere else.
We chose Aaron’s current school in Edmonton three years ago. We personally knew the Assistant Principal well, and we knew that he believed in Aaron. I remember when I first dropped Aaron off at school, he said to me: “We will take good care of him here.” And that they have. As an added bonus, Aaron has also learned and grown academically too. Last night , when we were playing a board game, Aaron had to answer: what is 25 plus 5? Thirty, he replied quickly. Last week, he excitedly took a Harry Potter book out of the school library. BOOM. Mission accomplished at his school that tries very hard to accept these kids with differences who show up at their door.
Now we are moving to Vancouver. Aaron is in Grade 6. We have to find him a new elementary school, until he’s in Grade 8 and transitions to high school. This has been an interesting journey.
Instead of picking a neighbourhood and then simply sending Aaron to the local school, we have gone through many hours of research of different school districts. We settled on Burnaby, which has a good reputation for doing inclusion well, and for supporting their students and teachers. We made this decision based on many conversations via email with local disability community champions. We also have friends who are happy with their daughter’s school experience in Burnaby.
So we opted out of the more-hip Vancouver locale for the municipality next door. Burnaby is chock full of small neighbourhood schools that have closed boundaries. That means there is a tiny attendance line drawn around a few select streets in the neighbourhood. You have to live in the neighbourhood to get into the school. This was particularly challenging in a tight rental market. There were not a lot of options for us (and our cats) to live in.
The deal with British Columbia, in general, is that all kids go to their neighbourhood school. For the most part, there are no special ed programs to push kids into. BC is committed to having to educate ALL the kids in their community, no matter their needs. (Now, please note that I think special ed sites & programs can provide awesome experiences for children and families. But if there is always a special ed option in your school district, asking that your child be included in a community school can be challenging).
This brings us to the chicken and the egg scenario. We had to find a rental home in the catchment area of a good school. Our challenge was to define what a good school means for Aaron. So here’s the process we embarked on…
In January, we had seven phone interviews with North and Central Burnaby principals. I chose the seven schools based on reputation and their ‘special needs’ rate – I didn’t want Aaron the only kid with needs in a small school. All the principals responded immediately to my initial email contact. My husband and I were nervous calling the first principal. What if he didn’t want our son? What if he directed us to another school? What if we had to beg to get Aaron in and sell him as being low need and as ‘normally’ behaving as possible? (This happens all the time in Edmonton).
Six of our seven principal interviews turned our fears upside down. The principals were friendly and welcoming. They asked about Aaron and what he was like. They told us how they included kids with all sorts of needs in their school. They talked about learning resource teachers, and Educational Assistants and Speech Language Pathologists who had offices at the school. They apologized for the lack of funding compared to wealthy Alberta.
A couple of times I almost dropped the phone. Alberta has a lot of money, yes. (Well, but the price of oil is falling, FAST, so the bust has begun). But Alberta does not put its money towards supporting their most vulnerable citizens. My home province’s funding levels for Educational Assistants are considerably lower than Burnaby’s. Like about FIVE TIMES LESS than Burnaby’s. Now, we know that funding isn’t everything – it is how the philosophy of inclusion is executed that’s important.
I knew from the first three minutes talking to the principals, what the culture and leadership was like at the school. I asked them:
1. Tell us about your school 2. What is your philosophy about inclusion – academic and social/emotional elements 3. How do you partner with parents? 4. What would a typical day look like for Aaron? 5. Do you have any experience with kids with Down syndrome? 6. How will his support be assigned? 7. Can we have an in-person visit on February 9?
We discarded only one principal. She was on and on about how much Aaron would cost her, and it took all my polite-Canadian strength not to hang up on her. But the other six! They said:
We believe in kids’ social and emotional needs. We focus our resources on kids. We believe in being approachable and open to parents. We do a good job for kids with special needs here. Our kids are great. We have flexibility in our funding for your son. If your son likes soccer, he can play inter-murals at lunch! We teach students to be responsible for their own emotional learning. We are working towards independence for all our kids. We have a can-do attitude. I’d move here if I had a kid with special needs.
We travelled to Vancouver last week. With the help of a realtor, the rental gods shone down on us, and we secured a home in the neighbourhood of one of our top schools. I cannot tell you the relief that I felt when we signed our tenancy agreement.
We went for a tour of Aaron’s new school. The principal spent a stunning 90 minutes with us, chatting with Aaron and introducing us to teachers around the school. He proudly showed us the classrooms, and the services for all their kids. Aaron was silent during the whole tour. (I told him to be polite, and I think he interpreted this as don’t say a word). I asked Aaron afterwards: what did you think of the school? It is awesome, he said. We are going to run with that, folks, to get us through this big transition for our transition-adverse boy.
Because choice of school for our kids means a lot – it isn’t just the building down the street. It is where our youngest boy will learn, flourish, grow, make friends and be independent. None of this comes easy for him, and he needs all the kindness, compassion and support he can get. I’m optimistic with a touch of caution, and I know that the proof is in the pudding. But so far, so good. Thank you, Burnaby, for your warm welcome and your exceptional first impression.