Put on your rubber boots, we’re wading through bureaucratic crap.

Puck starts a new school in September, because administrators at the school he’s attended since Primary have stated they can’t support him to the level he needs. He’ll be attending one of a handful of schools in this province that focuses exclusively on teaching kids with learning disabilities and/or ADHD. In the old days, when I was in school, I suppose we called this “special ed”. It’s taken a while for his dad and I to get our heads around that.

The new school is technically part of the public school system, but it’s a private school — meaning, you must apply, be accepted, and pay a sizeable tuition. Because it’s part of the public school system, however, tuition support is available from the Department of Education, if you meet certain requirements:

  • accepted to school (check)
  • diagnosis of learning disability and/or ADHD (check)
  • supporting psycho-educational assessment and IPP  (check)
  • previous attendance at a public school  (umm…..)

And that’s where the rubber boots and bureaucracy come in. Although Puck meets all the requirements and demonstrates a real need to attend a special education school, we’re not eligible for tuition support, because Puck has never attended public school.

Puck struggled socially and academically even at age three. He became anxious and overwhelmed in groups, and showed signs of language-based learning disabilities. Based on his preschool teacher’s concerns, we had a screening with an early interventionist when Puck was four. She found no obvious developmental delays, but there were indications of learning challenges that she felt would likely become more evident in the school system. She suggested to us that Puck might benefit from a private school, where there would be a lower student-teacher ratio and more individualized attention. Our older child, Daisy, was just about to start Primary at our neighbourhood school. After talking with educators, psychologists, and other parents, and giving much thought to what would be best for Puck, we decided to enrol both he and Daisy in a liberal-arts private school.

Daisy thrived at the school. Puck did not. The school environment was nurturing and the teachers well-trained and thoughtful, but from the beginning, Puck was lost. He was unable to identify letters, to read, or to follow directions. He became frustrated and angry, yelling at teachers and hitting himself. His first psycho-educational assessment revealed language-based learning disabilities and slow visual processing speed. The most recent assessment found that his learning challenges are much more severe than previously believed, and are compounded by clinical anxiety and ADHD. Additionally, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome in 2014.

After both psycho-educational assessments, the school worked with a psychologist and a learning resource teacher to put in place accommodations. By this January, however, it was clear that the accommodations weren’t working. He was doing so little work that it was impossible to assess whether he was meeting any provincial learning outcomes (although it was evident to all that he was not meeting them). His teachers told us they were unable to teach him — they feel they don’t have the insight into learning disabilities that he needs. He would not be allowed to continue there.

While the academic impact of Puck’s learning disabilities has been profound, the impact to his sense of self and psychological well-being has been devastating. We have watched him devolve from a happy, curious five year old to an eleven year old who calls himself stupid, hits himself in frustration, and feels he is ‘bad’

He feels he’s not worth helping, and that he doesn’t fit in anywhere. We’re desperate to prove him wrong.

We believe the new special education school can help. Going there means he’ll have access to teachers who understand his learning challenges and how best to teach him. He’ll be surrounded by other children who have the same lived experience — he won’t feel isolated, or like he’s the ‘stupid’ or ‘bad’ one. He won’t automatically be sent home every day due to emotional outbursts. He won’t feel left behind, or left out. He’ll have access to specialized programming and services that help him not only to catch up academically, but that focus on teaching him to live (and thrive) with learning disabilities, and to develop social skills. He’ll have the emotional support and understanding that he needs to develop self-confidence, and to be a happy young person.

Maybe – we hope – he will, for the first time in his six years of school, not feel physically ill at the idea of going to school.

But…there’s the issue of money.

Due to his struggles, Puck has missed months of school at a time. For the past two years, it’s been rare that he stays at school the whole day. As a result, I’ve only been able to work part-time. This has put us under considerable financial strain. We don’t live extravagantly. We haven’t gone on vacation in years. We share one modest car. We don’t go out much. Even with belt-tightening, we’ve struggled to pay his tuition, on-going psychological treatment, and academic tutoring, all on a greatly reduced income. We have taken on significant debt. We also have to consider our financial ability to meet Daisy’s needs.

The school he’s been going to gave us a break on tuition this year, knowing that Puck wasn’t getting much out of the program they offered, and that we were struggling to pay for him and Daisy. It was greatly appreciated. But now, we’re faced with a huge tuition bill, and no support….simply because we made a choice that we believed, at the time, was in Puck’s best interest.

When our school told us they were no longer able to teach Puck, we explored all our options –  and that included our neighbourhood public school. Moving Puck to public school for his last year of elementary school wouldn’t be ideal. He’d be an outsider and would know no one. He’d be a kid with ‘special needs’, and he’d need to move again a year later for junior high. We do believe the special education school’s intensive approach and individualized program is better suited to his needs. Nevertheless, I left three phone requests at the public school for a meeting, and two emails to the Principal and Vice-Principal. No response. I contacted the school board. No response.

The people from the Department of Education’s tuition support program have been responsive and informative. What they haven’t been — what they can’t be, because their hands are tied by regulations – is encouraging. The woman I spoke to there this week told me we are the first family from a private school that has requested tuition support. I find that hard to believe. But it seems the other families who’ve been in our position either put their kids in public school for a couple of months to meet the requirements, or just bucked up and payed the tuition themselves.

She said that it’s really unfortunate the neighbourhood school hadn’t phoned me back, because from the Department’s perspective, what would be ‘ideal’ would be for Puck to go to the public school for a couple of months, so that he could be assessed by the resource teachers there, and once it was clear that wasn’t going to work, he could go to the special ed school with full tuition support.

“Ideal’ for whom?  Surely not for Puck, who would need to to fail and hit rock bottom before we can get any proper help for him. And not ideal for the teachers and other students, who are already in a system that’s overburdened.

Let’s keep in mind, Nova Scotia’s public school teachers protested loudly this past year that inclusion isn’t working, and there aren’t enough resources to help teachers support students like Puck.

Puck has had an incredibly difficult number of years that have taken a toll emotionally and mentally. The Department of Education is asking us to put him in a further vulnerable and isolated position for a few months more, simply so they can adhere to what the regulations tell them they must do. I don’t think that’s fair. And it’s not in my child’s best interest.

Even if Puck had continued at the school he’s attended for the past six years, he’d be in the public system in three years time (the school only goes to Grade 9). Without the social and emotional support the special education school can offer, we fear he will join the ranks of vulnerable young people who drop out of school or come into conflict with the law before he even makes it through the doors of our local high school. Or, if he does manage to get to high school, he would require such intensive educational and emotional supports that it would cost the system much more, at that point, than the tuition support we are currently requesting. Providing him with tuition support now, when the need is most critical but the opportunity for change most pronounced, would be the most cost-effective option for the Province.

We found out this week that our application for tuition support was rejected. Now, we begin an appeal process. And so, I put on my rubber booties and prepare for battle. Public education is a right in Canada. But free education, and equitable access to that education, is still something parents like me need to fight for.

In her November 2012 ruling in the case of Jeffrey Moore, Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella stated that, “Adequate special education…is not a dispensable luxury. For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children…” (Moore vs British Columbia (Education), 2012 SCC 61, [2012] 3 S.C.R. 360)

Puck needs that ramp, and accessing it should not be a luxury. Had we made the decision to send him to our neighbourhood public school when he was six, nothing would be different now. He would still now be in need of the kind of intensive support the special education school offers. The difference is, if he were now in the public school, no one would question his right to tuition support. His future success, and his ability to access special education in Nova Scotia, should not be hampered by the fact that we, his parents, made a decision to send him to a different school, based on the best information and advice we had at the time.

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