A new era in B.C. education began this week after limits on class size and composition were restored in a Supreme Court of Canada decision last year.

Nancy Perry, a UBC professor and a recipient of the  Dorothy Lam chair in special education, said it will take time to see the results in the classroom for students with learning disabilities, despite the landmark decision.

Perry taught as a special education teacher in the late 80s and early 90s in B.C. and is concerned about a decrease in support for students with learning disabilities over the past few decades.

"Some groups of children have been disproportionately affected by the decline in specialist support within schools," Perry said.

Sherri Brown, a senior research analyst with the B.C. Teachers Federation, said that thousands of these specialist support positions were cut in the last 15 years, including special education teachers, assistants for English language learners, counsellors and teacher librarians.

"Particularly since 2002, when we saw the illegal stripping of our collective agreement language, we saw a significant decline in the number of specialist teachers," Brown said. "A total of 35,000 teaching positions were lost and 1,600 of these were specialized positions."

Hiring more teachers

The province's agreement with the B.C. Teachers' Federation to spend $50 million on hiring new teachers and support staff is a start, Perry said, but not sufficient by itself.  

"It's not just a matter of hiring new teachers," Perry said. "Faculties of education are producing new teachers each year, but those teachers, after a 12 month teacher education program, are prepared as general classroom teachers."

More teachers with specialized education skills and knowledge need to be brought into the school system, she said. Without them, general education teachers struggle to support a classroom of students with diverse learning needs.

"What is also needed are teachers who have additional coursework, often advanced degrees and specialized knowledge for children with exceptional learning challenges," Perry said.

A sign of change

Faith Bodnar, the executive director of Inclusion B.C., said the recent Supreme Court decision is a sign of change to come.

"We hear about kids being sent out of the classroom. There is an increase in the use of seclusion and restraints," Bodnar said. "I think we are at a watershed time in B.C." 

A survey by Inclusion B.C. from 2013 gathered 200 reports from families saying their children had experienced negative and exclusive conditions in the classroom from physical restraints to time-outs in a separate room. 

For families with children requiring extra assistance at school, they are hoping this school year will be different than previous years.

"It's a hard journey and the experience definitely still hurts," said Erica Cedillo, the mother of a third-grader who struggled with classroom conditions when she first started school. "But I definitely feel hopeful."

Listen to Course Correction: Beginning the new era of B.C. education on CBC Radio 1 from Sept. 5 to 8, 2017.