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TDSB reassures parents who were worried about the future of gifted ed programs

Last Updated Dec 11, 2017 at 9:00 am EST

Amanda Gotllib and her mother, Gail Agensky are photographed in their home in Toronto on Saturday December 9, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov

TORONTO – A Toronto District School Board task force has walked back a proposal to restructure gifted and special education programs, which stoked major concerns among parents and advocates last week.

Many families were alarmed by an initial draft report from a TDSB task force which recommended, in part, that gifted students and students who need “special education” be integrated into regular classrooms.

Teachers would receive special ed and gifted training, and kids would still get the specially tailored learning they need. But, instead of travelling to one of the TDSB schools that offers “congregated” classes of exclusively gifted kids or exclusively special ed kids, the students would be in schools closer to home, mixed into regular stream classes.

In the updated finalized version of the report posted late Friday, the task force – which is dedicated to making the district more accepting, inclusive and fair for low-income, racialized and otherwise marginalized students – changed its gifted and special ed proposal, saying the board should retain congregated classes “while exploring options to include Special Education” at local schools.

Under this new proposal, the board would examine ways in which gifted and special ed programs could be made available at more schools in more communities, so kids with those special needs could access them closer to home.

One of the concerns identified by the board’s task force on equity was that students in lower-income areas had to leave their community to go to schools with special programming, leading to a perceived division between “good” schools in affluent areas and “bad schools” in less affluent areas.

TDSB trustees will discuss the finalized report at their meeting on Wednesday, and propose next steps. No final decisions will be made until early 2018.

“There will absolutely be more opportunity for the community to have input before any decisions are made by the board,” the TDSB says on its website.

The TDSB’s gifted program is lacking in racial diversity, and needs a total overhaul, said Carl James, a York University professor who specializes in the education of minority students.

“The larger process of getting students identified as gifted will have to be looked at,” James said, adding that black students in particular are less likely to be in gifted programs than their peers.

“We have to look at the extent to which the gifted test might have inherent cultural biases, that might disadvantage some students,” James said.

“There is (also) the extent to which teachers identify some students and even suggest that they be tested for being gifted.”

The prospect of having gifted students integrated in regular-stream classrooms was a major point of concern for parents who said their kids needed special accommodations in special classes to fulfil their academic potential.

Amanda Gotlib, a Grade 10 student in the gifted program at Northern Secondary School, tested as gifted when she was in Grade 4, and entered gifted classes in Grade 7. Her time in the regular-stream classes was hard, Amanda said. She had trouble concentrating, and would take hours to finish even short assignments.

Although regular-stream teachers knew she was gifted and promised to provide her with special accommodations, they didn’t really understand her needs, she said.

“I have some techniques I use when I’m trying to listen or focus and a lot of regular-stream teachers don’t really get that,” Amanda said. “I often draw. I like to do art and doodling while the lesson is going on.”

The term “gifted” gives people the false impression that kids like Amanda are effortlessly brilliant, said Amanda’s mother Gail Agensky. The reality is their brains work differently from other kids’ and they have different learning styles. They may not fit in socially with their peers, and often struggle with regular school work.

Placing gifted students in classes with only other gifted students takes away many of the anxieties and misunderstandings, Agensky added.

Cuts to special ed programs across the province have already resulted in many kids with learning disabilities, behavioural issues and other education needs being placed in regular classrooms, said Katharine Buchan, educational material co-ordinator with Autism Ontario.

“With the right supports, every student typically could be integrated into a regular classroom, but for high needs students or some students with autism that’s not always the answer,” Buchan said.

There are longstanding concerns about the burden placed on teachers by putting kids with special ed needs in regular-stream classes, said Andy Lomnicki, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario’s Toronto chapter.

“There’s nothing wrong with applying the lens of equity, but it can distort what you’re looking at and how you’re trying to fix (equity problems),” Lomnicki said.

“An equitable lens could say that every student (should be) in the same classroom, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it is serving their needs, or their parents needs, or the other kids in the classroom’s needs, or the teacher’s needs.”