New Brunswick

Inclusive classroom wasn't the answer for these struggling kids

Sherri Leger and Jennifer Miller-Poitras, both mothers of children with learning challenges, says the best option for some students is not an inclusive classroom in a public school but a private school for students with learning disabilities.

'She's finally invited to birthday parties,' mom says after daughter switches to private school

Sherri Leger says public school in New Brunswick wasn't working for her daughter Alyna, who has learning disabilities. The small class size and approach at Riverbend Community School has allowed Alyna to thrive, Leger says. (Submitted by Sherri Leger)

Sherri Leger and Jennifer Miller-Poitras, both Moncton-area mothers of children with learning challenges, believe all children who are struggling in public school classrooms deserve another option.

For their families, the best option was not an inclusive classroom in a public school but rather a private school for students with learning disabilities.

It's not like the teachers aren't trying in public school. They're certainly doing their best with what's given to them but she was only taken out of class for 20 minutes a day with a resource teacher and that was not enough.- Sherri Leger

"It wasn't working," Leger said of inclusion in the public school system. "We tried and we tried."

Leger's 11-year-old daughter Alyna, was diagnosed with learning disabilities in reading, writing and math in Grade 3. Then she moved to the private Riverbend Community School in Moncton, where she's shown "dramatic improvements" in over two years, Leger said. 

She said in grades 3 and 4, Leger worked with the public school on special learning plans and accommodation for her daughter and hired a tutor.

"It's not like the teachers aren't trying in public school," Leger said.

"They're certainly doing their best with what's given to them but she was only taken out of class for 20 minutes a day with a resource teacher and that was not enough."

Students can't wait for change

Despite everyone's best efforts her daughter was falling further and further behind.

"It was her sitting in a classroom basically being lost all day and just sitting there going through the motions. ... They're trying to include every child in the classroom and teach them all the same way but it's not working."

Miller-Poitras said choosing a private school for her son Noah, who is in Grade 5, was a difficult decision for her family, but in the end she and her husband decided it was the right choice.

Jennifer Miller-Poitras says it was a struggle to persuade her 10-year-old-son Noah to go to public school, and he is 'a lot happier' at the private Riverbend Community School. (Submitted by Jennifer Miller-Poitras)

Noah was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and while his marks were "reasonable," his mother said, he wasn't thriving.

"His self-esteem was going down every year. It was a bit of a battle to get him to school in the mornings."

She said the public school did make accommodations for her son, but it still wasn't enough.

Miller-Poitras said there has been a big change in the three months since her son has attended Riverbend Community School, where seven students in grades 5 through 7 make up the class.

"He's a lot happier, he goes to school in the morning and no complaints. He even does homework without complaining too much."

Easy to fall through cracks

Miller-Poitras admits there have been challenges for her son.

"In the public system, because there are so many kids that have so many needs, it was easy for him to fall through the cracks or hide," she said. "You can't really hide at Riverbend."

It wasn't just the education piece. It was her social well being and being in a school that's filled with kids that are like her... she's finally invited to birthday parties.- Sherri Leger

"If it was hard, he would just stop working and if the teacher was too busy with someone else she might not notice whereas, at Riverbend he has to persevere and he has to keep going even if it's challenging."

Leger said she, too, has seen her daughter learn those life skills. She has also seen her daughter, who had low self-esteem, make friends.

"She didn't have any friends at public school. It wasn't just the education piece. It was her social well-being and being in a school that's filled with kids that are like her ... she's finally invited to birthday parties."

Private school cost a barrier

Leger said when she first learned the cost of tuition at Riverbend, about $1,000 per month, her mouth dropped.

"I was like, 'How are we going to do this?' but then my husband said, 'How can we not?'"

Riverbend Community School has seven students but director Rebecca Halliday would like to see the private school expand by reducing tuition from $1,000 per month to $650. (CBC)

Leger and her husband sold their family vacation trailer to afford the private education they believe their daughter needs.

She continues to push for tuition support from the provincial government.

"If you're taking a child out of the public system — a child that uses up all the school's resources, you're taking that weight out of the system and you're putting it into a child's education, where it's actually going to work for them."

Miller-Poitras wants to see other families have the option of a small school environment, where students benefit from the consistency of the same teacher for several years.

"We've seen the significant change that it's making in our son's life and we would love other kids and other parents to be able to enjoy that privilege ... we want this school to be sustainable."

Tuition support not coming

Rebecca Halliday, director of Riverbend Community School, said that after years of lobbying the provincial government she does not believe there is any hope of tuition support for students at her school.

Halliday says Riverbend, as well as schools like it, could be an ally of the public school system. (CBC)

"It's just not going to happen," Halliday said. "That's the message I keep hearing ... tuition support just won't happen in New Brunswick. So I got to the point where it does get tiring to try and fight for it.

"We see the value of it, people see the value of it, other provinces get that it's not just taking money out of the pockets of the public school ... we see it as being an ally and providing help to these holes that maybe inclusion can't always address."

Halliday said rather than fight for tuition support she has now turned her efforts towards finding a way to lower the monthly tuition for Riverbend from $1,000 per month to $650, which is an average cost of monthly daycare.

Halliday, who now has seven students, said it's a numbers game but she could start a new class every time she has 10 students registered. She is thinking of starting a class for Grades 1 to 3.

"We can keep the doors open, the teachers paid and the heat on — it's a social enterprise. Nobody's making extra money here."

Halliday said she is hopeful she will be able to offer the experience and expertise of her school to more New Brunswick children.

Public route not for everyone

"Public school is [an] amazing place for many kids. I just think for some kids it's just not."

Leger and Miller-Poitras agree. Both have other children who attend the public school system and both say they are being well-educated.

The goal of Riverbend is to fill in some gaps and teach children how to learn, so they can return to public school in Grade 9.

Halliday said many of her students have already made the transition back to public school and are doing as well as their peers.


Vanessa Blanch is a reporter based in Moncton. She has worked across the country for CBC for more than 20 years. If you have story ideas to share please email: