‘Will I have Candice next year?”
It was a question Wendy Baskin hadn’t expected Thursday afternoon.
Posed by her 13-year-old son Jack, the issue was one she hadn’t yet broached with him – the very real possibility that the woman who had, since January, reignited his interest in school and was helping him succeed, might not be the same person supporting him in the classroom come September.
The fact was, Baskin – like many other Surrey families with children who have special needs – didn’t yet know herself.
While she was relieved a day later to learn that her son was one of the lucky ones and would, indeed, retain his Education Assistant (EA) for the 2019-2020 school year, many families in similar situations are still waiting to hear.
The school district was expected to share decisions on such continuity requests starting Monday, after Peace Arch News’ press deadline.
Discussing the issue outside Elgin Park Secondary – where Jack attends Grade 8 – Baskin and fellow parents Lama Alsaafin, Christine Tapp, Natasha Singh and Rozann Pedersen say the uncertainty is something they endure every year.
“Every year is a drama, every year is a struggle,” said Pedersen, who last year had to fight for her son Lucas to retain his full-time classroom support hours.
The “continuity” issue was raised last June, when a group of about 40 parents protested at a Surrey Board of Education meeting, saying the absence of continuity was creating unsafe environments and was not in the best interest of children with special needs.
A Letter of Understanding (LOU) struck earlier this year between the Surrey School District and CUPE 728 has not helped the matter, they said.
The agreement formalized the process for parents who wish to apply to keep their child’s EA for the next school year.
School district spokesman Doug Strachan in March described the move as “progressive,” noting Surrey was one of the only B.C. districts to take the step.
“We’re miles ahead in trying to accommodate parents’ wishes for EA continuity,” said Strachan. “The LOU provides a robust, structured, transparent and collaborative approach to ensure proper and thorough consideration is given to requests for EA continuity. It takes out as much as possible the interpretations and applies more rigour.”
Parents at that time argued that children’s learning can be hampered when starting off the school year with a new EA, saying it can sometimes take months for new EAs to learn how to communicate and work effectively with the child.
Baskin said Jack, who is autistic and has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), missed the first half of his Grade 8 year at Elgin because his new EA wasn’t a good fit. The relationship deteriorated to a point that Jack simply refused to set foot in the school, she said.
He stayed home from Oct. 31 to Jan. 8.
Since Jack and Candice were connected in January, “it’s like I have a new child,” Baskin said. Jack has even started talking again about his future as a scientist and attending UBC, she said; topics that had all but ceased as his frustration with school escalated.
“I can’t have an intelligent child with big, huge dreams hate school.”
Thursday, Jack described Candice as “cool,” and said he, too, worried about not having her support.
“Candice is really nice. If I didn’t have her next year, I’d probably just go back to the old me that doesn’t like school.”
There are an estimated 3,000 Surrey students who received EA support this school year, and 35 of the families requested continuity by the March 1 deadline.
Strachan – who was unable to confirm if the number of requests had changed by PAN’s press deadline – said Friday that those families should receive their answers by the end of this week.
Alsaafin said the new LOU prevented her from making a continuity request, as it stipulates that her son’s EA must have been with him for at least six months to be eligible.
Eleven-year-old Ahmad, known to his Semiahmoo Trail Elementary friends and classmates as Moodi, has had multiple EAs this year, Alsaafin said – six in the first four months of the school year.
His mom said the challenge in proving Moodi’s need for continuity is that he shows the stress such change has on him at home, not at school – a factor that’s not recognized by the district/union process.
On top of that, she has had to pay out of her own pocket to train EAs that lack the skills to support him, only to have those EAs pulled from their positions to support other children.
Tapp, whose son Nathan attends Surrey Centre Elementary in Cloverdale, said there needs to be a recognition that the continuity – or lack of it – “goes home with us.”
“What’s happening on the outside isn’t necessarily what’s happening on the inside,” she said.
“I was smacked across the face from September to November almost every day by a nine-year-old. Not having that (EA) continuity is putting me at risk.”
She added that few members of the 12-person committee that reviews the continuity applications have direct contact with the child at the centre of those requests. Noting five are designated to CUPE members, Tapp said she “gets” the union’s role of ensuring its workers’ seniority rights are recognized.
But she questioned, “what trumps: someone’s seniority… or a child’s – who sometimes can’t speak for themselves – right to an education?”
Singh said she can’t understand logic that removes a worker from a child they’ve had success with, when it’s the established relationships that have contributed to that success – as is the case with her 10-year-old daughter, Nadiya.
Nadiya, who Singh said is “high-functioning, but has no concept of social skills,” has had the same EA for nearly three years, with success she attributes unequivocally to the continuity, but “they want to pull her to another, higher-needs student… because Nadiya has improved.”
Singh said officials have told her that Nadiya “has to learn how to work with new people,” but for someone with autism, that is “like telling a square to fit into a circle.”
“It just doesn’t work,” she said. “I feel like she’s being punished.”
She’s also worried that Nadiya’s support hours have been reduced again, an issue she’s been told will be addressed through “juggling.” That solution, she said, means pulling hours from another child.
Singh said she plans to call her daughter’s school “every day” this week to find out if she will get to keep her EA.
Tapp said the issue may be one best decided by a federal judge, and that she is “totally willing to take it there.”
– with files from Amy Reid