Class composition crisis in Northern B.C. school district

Sheer number of violations tally up to $550,000 in remedies

Public school teachers and their administrators are struggling to cope with the number of special needs students in classes.

Although the number of students in classes now mostly meet an agreement reached this year between the provincial government and teachers, the ratio of special needs students within many classes throughout the Coast Mountains School District exceeds what was set out in the agreement.

Since September nearly 80 per cent of the district’s classes are in violation of the special needs composition limits.

While there have been improvements Terrace and District Teachers’ Union president Mike Wen says some classes still have as many as 10 special needs students in a class of 26.

“Most of them who have real problems are teachers who end up with nine, 10 or 11 identified kids in their class,” Wen said.

“You need to look at things through the lens of composition as well as class size. If you put the two together, [you’d] have a smaller class of 14 with three identified students, not a class of 28 with six identified students.”

“There’s a big difference between the two. That’s why there’s so much frustration,” said Wen.

The issues are particularly bad at Mount Elizabeth Middle Secondary, Skeena Middle School in Terrace, Caledonia Senior Secondary in Terrace, and Hazelton Secondary in Hazelton.

That’s because all the elementary schools converge into one secondary school, and the special needs students are all funnelled through the same core courses.

But nearly every school in the district has classes in violation, except for Bear Valley in Stewart and Ecole Mountainview, Suwilaawks, and Thornhill Primary in Terrace.

The solution for class composition challenges reached in this year’s agreement is to provide what are called remedies based on a formula which sets out the amount of money that can be spent to hire extra help in one form or another.

That can take the form of another teacher in the class or by bringing in a substitute so the regular teacher has more prep time.

To date that remedy for the Coast Mountains School District works out to $337 a month for each violation of each class composition limit.

How that money is spent each month is negotiated monthly by teachers and their administrators, adding to teacher frustration about the overall issue of the number of special needs students in classes, said Wen.

“The remedy isn’t hiring an extra teacher for the full year, it’s like, get someone to come — if you have enough time — once a week for the month, or one afternoon for a month,” explained Wen.

“Or, you can get a TTOC (Teacher Teaching On Call, known as a substitute) to come in for the day, and you take extra prep time.”

The school district has so far spent $550,000 on monthly class composition remedies from the $2.73 million it received from the province to address that issue and to hire more teachers.

“It’s a huge amount of work,” said school district secretary-treasurer Alanna Cameron of managing the situation and reporting in on how the money is spent.

“We have workbooks galore, endless workbooks of every single class…. and in the high school that’s one teacher with four blocks,” she said.

“There are only four schools in our district without any violations,” said Cameron.

“All of the other schools in our district have violations and require tracking – it’s a tremendous undertaking.”

The agreement this year to set limits on class sizes and the number of special needs students per class arose from a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in 2016 which restored those limits as set out in teacher contracts dating back to 2002.

That was when the B.C. Liberal government of the day passed legislation wiping out those limits, setting in motion lengthy court battle between government and teachers, a battle ultimately won by the teachers thanks to the 2016 supreme court decision.

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