The schools we have today are a far cry from the factory models that were designed to produce the workers needed during the industrial revolution. It’s no longer a “one size fits all” kind of place. For instance, our West Vancouver Schools have a variety of options that include more traditional programs like French Immersion and International Baccalaureate, as well as specific academies that draw specialized interests such as animation, baseball and fencing. Yes, that’s right, fencing! No longer do we stream boys into the industrial arts and girls into home economics – students are free to choose from a myriad of options that might suggest that there’s something for everyone.
However, the structure of school itself isn’t designed for everyone. Schools were designed to meet what might be considered the “normal” needs of most of the population. If we consider a normal distribution, the majority, or 68% of the population, are in the middle (blue part) of the curve. For those who find themselves on the margins, school can be a difficult place to be. Consider those students who might have learning disabilities, those who might have difficult home lives, or those who might struggle with mental health – despite the increasing range of options available, schools are still designed to meet the needs of the middle and some students remain on the outsides.
There appears to be a growing narrative across the province that suggests an increasing number of students identified with special needs are arriving in our classrooms and there are many more who have needs that are not recognized by ministry designations. As well, the narrative goes, there are an increasing number of English Language Learners. But as I think about normal distributions, if the majority of the students in a classroom have diverse needs, then wouldn’t diversity actually BE the norm? Perhaps we are struggling with trying to meet the diverse needs of our learners because the factory model of school no longer reflects the world in which we live. If we want schools to exude the spirit of inclusion and embrace diversity, to be places where all students belong, feel welcome, and have meaningful learning experiences, then we need to make more changes.
Let’s start by changing the language we use, beginning with “special” education. The title of special education perpetuates the idea of “otherness”. It suggests a medical model that identifies the student as flawed and in need of fixing. Although our department is now called Student Support Services, we might consider just being called Student Services or even better, placed under the umbrella of Learning Services, supporting all teachers and students in teaching and learning. Removing the special education or student support label may help to remove that sense of difference and move differentiation from the margins to the center of educational practice.
While we are rethinking special education, let’s rethink alternate education too. Inglewood Secondary is our newest West Vancouver high school from which students can graduate with a full Dogwood Diploma. The structure of Inglewood is designed around flexible scheduling and individualized learning in a smaller setting. Led by Head Teacher, Stefan Huskilson, the staff at Inglewood are passionate about creating a learning environment where the students feel like they belong and matter.
Recently, Stefan and Inglewood student, Teagan Hartwick, presented to our District Parent Advisory Committee. Teagan explained that the students at Inglewood are regular kids – they just need a different environment. She talked about how it didn’t work for her in the big school; she wasn’t attending and wanted to drop out. But being at Inglewood is different. She called Inglewood “home” and talked about working so hard that she could have graduated a year early. In fact, she has now applied to university. And while she talked about how she used to be failing in the other setting, I think she got that part wrong. School was failing Teagan. And unfortunately, despite the different options, technology, and new programs, we still aren’t reaching every child.
We need to rethink how we do education. Let’s change our collective attitudes, beliefs, and practices to better include all our students and make them all feel like they belong. All of our kids deserve to have meaningful learning experiences and achieve high standards. Because in the end, it’s not alternate, it’s not special, it’s just education.