Friday, 29 July 2016

Why I Will Never Send my Child to a Toronto Public School

*I wrote this piece two years ago and decided against posting it. But after much thought and deliberation, I think it is beneficial to share. Our voices as parents of spirited children is often drowned out and not heard. Our children suffer as a consequence. I'm sharing with the hope that more focus will be placed on better managing funding and support for children with learning differences in the TDSB and beyond*

My curious three year old has been anxiously awaiting the school year all summer. Every day he would wake up and ask, “Can I go to school now?” As the school year came closer, we practiced how to get ready, talked about classroom routines, and role played quite a bit. He is ready, I thought.

I briefly met his teacher who greeted us with a smile. My anxieties melted away when I saw his eager body line up as all the kindergarten students did. He waved goodbye and went into the school. He’ll be fine, I thought.

As the weeks passed, I saw a change in my son's attitude towards school. His teacher sent home notes about his behaviour, the principal called with concerns, the lunchroom supervisor called him disruptive and asked that he be picked up for lunch. I was astounded. Within three weeks of school, there was an avalanche of concerns coming from the school staff. None of which included ways of how to help him adjust. He was the youngest in a class with junior and senior kindergarten students. I expected that school staff are aware that some students take more time to adjust than others. 

I asked to meet with the staff to discuss how to best help my son transition to this new environment. The meeting started off with the principal suggesting that my child be placed in a self-contained classroom. It is important to mention that at this point, my child was assessed and followed by a developmental pediatrician and has not been diagnosed with any developmental delays that would warrant such a recommendation. Once again, I was baffled by the lack of effort on the school's part to accommodate any learning differences and how quick she was able to jump to this conclusion. 

During this meeting, other panel members glanced to each other and seemed uncomfortable with the principal's recommendation. One social worker refuted the principal’s recommendation by saying it was very early on in the school year for such a recommendation. The principal ignored her completely and continued to insist that I sign on it. Another panel member started to speak about how to help the teacher by giving her certain tools to work with my son in the classroom. Again, dismissed and interrupted by the principal who so eagerly insists I sign. Why is she so eager? I wondered.

My parental instincts wanted to pull him out of this school. I was angry, frustrated, and felt helpless. The teacher that smiled at me in the beginning of the school year, the one I thought will be my child’s first positive school memories, was showing him the door out before giving him a chance. She was not willing to work with him or help him adjust to this profoundly new environment.

The next few weeks continued to go downhill. I made phone calls to anyone and everyone involved in the school district, children’s advocacy programs, pediatricians, other kindergarten teachers and school staff to get a better picture of how to proceed and whether this is standard for the TDSB. Just like any other parent, I had my child’s best interests in mind. Every time I tried communicating my ideas to the principal, she became defensive, condescending, and unhelpful.

I turned to the one in the front lines: my child’s teacher. I left her helpful tools and methods in dealing with the behaviours she was concerned about, I followed up and kept close contact with her. Most of all, I was sympathetic. I understand it could be overwhelming dealing with a classroom of 26 busy kindergarten students. I tried my best to communicate my sympathy and offered to help in any way. 

I pulled out my child from full-day kindergarten. I started putting him in half days after he came home complaining that a teacher “hit him”. I hesitantly brushed off my child’s allegations thinking it may have been a misinterpretation. When it comes to your own child’s well-being, it’s not so easy to brush off. When my child came home again complaining that the same teacher hit him, I met with the principal and his teachers. I mentioned the complaints to them and I was bewildered by their response. They scoffed. They laughed. They said it can’t be because that teacher wouldn't "hurt a fly."

Then my son came home mentioning a new teacher's name and a few students' names that I was not familiar with. I probed until I found out that the school has casually placed my son in another classroom for children with behavioural issues without my consent. To make sure my son's story checked out, I mentioned the new teacher's name in passing in a conversation with my son's teacher and she confirmed that they have put him into this new class, unofficially. Of course, this was met with denial on the principal's part. 
I could go on about the many unprofessional encounters I was met with at this school, but I made my point. I pulled my son out of this school thinking I was making a great decision. I thought this was an anomaly for the Toronto District School Board. There must be better schools here, right?
For senior kindergarten, we moved into another catchment area. I made sure to visit the school beforehand and had a brief conversation with the principal. It appeared to be a bigger school with more classrooms and more teachers, so naturally I assumed there will be more support. I was so, so wrong. 
The new principal was a breath of fresh air. Compared to the previous one, this one really knew how to communicate to parents. She made me feel like my concerns were heard, and that she will do all she can to help. I felt heard, and she made it seem like she was on my side. I appreciated that approach more than ever, especially after the damage the other principal has done to TDSB's reputation. Unfortunately, this principal had medical issues and was on leave for a good part of the year. 

What she told me upfront is that TDSB schools are grossly underfunded. Cuts were made to school support workers, there was a waitlist for program to help children with behavioural issues despite the fact that there is a growing number of children that need specialized support. I spoke with other TDSB staff off the record and was told that it very well could be mismanagement of funds. She alluded to the idea that there is a certain amount of intolerance towards children with learning differences. Teachers are overwhelmed by the large class sizes and are stretched thin. They either don't have the patience for children with learning differences, or do not think it is their responsibility to teach them. I personally experienced two different teachers in different schools try to pawn off my child to other classrooms.

 The new teacher showed little to no effort in trying to support my child. To add insult to injury, the entire classroom structure is outdated. Of the six hours the students were in school, they only had one 20 minute outdoor play period. The classroom was shared with a daycare so the majority of the sensory activities and crafts belonged to the daycare and the students were not allowed to play any of the activities. For a child who didn't understand this, he was constantly told "no," and it frustrated him. To put four year and five year olds in a room with interesting activities and tell them they can't play with it day after day, they will start to dread that environment. And that's what happened.

My son dreaded going to school ever day. He often said he "hated" school and missed his old school. That spoke volumes to me. In the entire school year, my son did not bring home one piece of artwork. When I asked about it, I found out that they did not involve him in most of the activities the other students did. They had no expectations of him, despite him showing reading readiness and met academic standards for his grade level. I contacted a school support worker about this and she was outraged by the staff's inability to include. She stated that my child's case is the "mildest, and least disruptive type of case" she has been involved with. She did not understand the lack of effort on the teacher's part.   

This sentiment was echoed by my child's developmental pediatrician. She believed my child's case was not one that warranted the type of reaction from the schools. More needed to be done. We sought out an autism diagnosis so my child can receive proper services at school. His developmental pediatrician said that the sad reality of this school district is that a child with learning differences will not have any rights or given the right education unless there is a formal diagnosis that he can lean on. A diagnosis gives him rights that the school cannot deny. We shared this diagnosis with the school. We thought they will finally give my child the education he deserves. Again, I was wrong.

At the IPRC meeting that we waited two months for, the panel said there is a long waitlist for kindergarten programs. Even those programs are for more severe cases and they will not be a good fit for him. They concluded his current classroom will be best for him with support in class. However, the school did not have enough funding for a support worker in class, and there are rules against hiring private help to go into the school. In other words, our hands were tied. This meeting did not offer any alternatives. I voiced my concerns about the teacher not following through with the IEP. I was told it will be discussed with her. I asked for a more effective communication strategy with the teacher. Again, it didn't happen for longer than three weeks.

My son's attitude towards school hit an all time low. There was nothing that the school changed or helped with, despite voicing my concerns to the superintendent. I was always met with vagueness. So I finally pulled him out of school. If this is how kindergarten is at the TDSB, I cannot imagine how the other years will be.

I hope my experience is an anomaly. I feel for all the bright students that fall in the cracks. For the students with teachers that fail to see their brightness; for those unmotivated to find ways to work towards an inclusive and stimulating learning environment. Unique children need passionate educators. They need educators who put their students ahead of convenience. They work harder to make students feel welcome. They certainly do not gather them into a separate classroom away from the rest of the students. I call that discrimination.There is a trend towards inclusive classrooms that is backed by much research. Most school boards have implemented this trend as per the Ministry of Education’s policy. Unfortunately, some still find loopholes and place children with unidentifiable special needs into isolation.

I share this story for two reasons. Primary school teachers have a tremendous responsibility. Parents leave their young children in their trust, and expect a safe and nurturing learning environment. There needs to be a way to hold educators accountable if they fail. To the family that moved cities to provide better education for their child, you did well. But some of us cannot uproot and move in protest of the poor school policies. There needs to be more funding and training for educators to better handle learning differences in the classroom. There needs to be accountability for denying students a proper education due to lack of funding. Secondly, I share this story for the other parents who have shared a similar experience. Know that you are your child’s best advocate.

Educators have an incredible opportunity to shape the future of their students. It is certainly not a day job that ends when you leave the classroom. Please remember that, a child’s success depends on your willingness to work with all students to help them achieve their potential. 

My awful experience with the TDSB has led me to look for alternative schooling options. He is now enrolled in a private school and has not been happier to be going to school. I see the spark in his eyes again. 

1 comment:

  1. So glad you found a school that he's happy to be in!!