British Columbia

'It's heartbreaking': Surrey schools short on support for students with special needs

Support teachers for students with special needs in the Surrey School District are strained by heavy caseloads after 66 jobs were cut earlier this year. A shortage of on-call teachers is also exacerbating the impact on students with learning disabilities.

Special needs support teachers are strained by heavy caseloads after 66 jobs were cut earlier this year

Learning support teachers are strained after 66 jobs were cut earlier this year. (CBC)

Arlene Laing used to spend her days teaching small groups of first and second grade students with special needs how to read.

But this year, some of her learning groups doubled in size — reducing the amount of time she gets to spend with each student.

"Right now, I have groups that are so big that I'm not able to be as effective," Laing told CBC News. "It's really, really affecting our kids negatively."

Lang is a learning support teacher at Surrey's Green Timbers Elementary and is dealing with a swelling caseload after the Surrey School District cut 66 support worker jobs earlier this year, due to budget constraints.

"It's really really frustrating, because you want to do what's best for these kids. You want to do what's right for these kids — and you can't."

Laing says some students that would have received support in the past have found themselves without a support worker for the school year.

The loss of 66

According to the Surrey School District, the jobs were axed following the Supreme Court of Canada's ruling to reduce classroom sizes and restore bargaining rights to teachers.

District spokesperson Doug Strachan says the jobs were originally financed by the now-defunct provincial Learning Improvement Fund (LIF), which was put in place in 2012 to support special needs students and deal with increasing class sizes.

He says the LIF dollars have been rolled into B.C.'s Classroom Enhancement Fund, a stream that's allocated for hiring new teaching staff.

"We've hired 350 teachers, but funding for the learning support teachers is the subject of ongoing negotiations between the government and the B.C. Teacher's Federation."

Students with special needs and learning disabilities aren't always getting the interventions and one-on-one support they need as support workers are often called to fill in for sick teachers. (Robert MacPherson/AFP/Getty Images)

But representatives from the BCTF denied those claims, and told CBC News that many school districts are using dollars from the classroom enhancement fund to secure learning support teachers.

Shortage of on-call teachers

Strain on support workers in the district is also being exacerbated by the ongoing struggle to find on-call teachers.

With just over 300 full-time on-call teachers in the district, there aren't enough to meet the demand. In September, over 300 classrooms were unable to find on-call substitutes when teachers were absent.

Some elementary schools have leaned on special needs support workers to fill in the gaps. Lang says she's regularly pulled from her duties to fill in for an absent teacher.

"It's frustrating, because, you know, your kids are going to be that much further behind on their program," said Lang.

Gioia Breda, the president of the Surrey Teachers' Association, says the school district is in the midst of "a learning support teacher crisis."

"It's heartbreaking," Breda told CBC News. "Our most complex learners aren't getting that daily intervention that they need."

Breda expects more support workers to be pulled from their groups in the coming months to backfill for teachers. In the first week of October alone, there were over 200 absences that weren't filled by designated substitutes.

"You can see how this problem is increasing, and as cold and flu season heads our way, we are really concerned about students not having a teacher in front of them."

Breda says the district is short 100 on-call teachers.

About the Author

Jon Hernandez

Video Journalist

Jon Hernandez is an award-winning multimedia journalist from Vancouver, British Columbia. His reporting has explored mass international migration in Chile, controversial logging practices in British Columbia, and the global HIV/AIDS epidemic. Follow Jon Hernandez on Twitter: