Southern Alberta parents voice concerns over new funding model for kids with complex needs

News source from CTV News

LETHBRIDGE, ALTA. —
There are growing concerns that changes to Alberta’s education funding could cause students with severe disabilities to fall further behind.

“These kids deserve the funding,” said Hope Rudics, who has a 7-year old son with autism, and is president of the Chinook Autism Society.

“Taking that extra support away from those students is literally robbing them of any potential that we don’t know they have yet, and that’s not fair to them, and it’s not fair to the families.”

Rudics is among thousands of Alberta parents who have signed a petition urging the UCP government to reverse cuts to Program Unit Funding, or PUF, which is used to support children’s participation and learning prior to starting school.

Lethbridge West MLA Shannon Phillips has started an online petition calling upon MLA’s to urge the government to increase PUF overall, so all incoming children get access to the supports they need to make them successful. “That petition has made its way around Alberta, and has received over 8,000 signatures in just two weeks. I think that shows how much people care about this issue,” Phillips said.

Education cuts

PUF supports early education for students who need extra help. It includes people like educational assistants, speech language pathologists, and occupational therapists. The program is meant to give students with disabilities a chance to keep pace alongside their peers as they enter the school system.

“Many of these kids are already struggling to keep up with their peers,” said Shannon Phillips, MLA for Lethbridge-West. “These cuts by the UCP will only make it harder for them to succeed.”

Thriving

Chelsea Matisz said program unit funding provided a full time educational assistant fluent in sign language for her 5-year old son, who is deaf. As a result, he was able to integrate into the kindergarten classroom, “We have seen this total transformation in his ability to communicate, and he is thriving,” Matisz said.

She added that  the whole classroom has also become integrated into his world. “All the children are learning sign language. They are learning about deaf culture.”

Matisz said cuts to these programs are not only devastating to her son’s future, but to all of the families involved. “You can’t just cut a bunch of EA positions and tell all the parents everything will be fine.”

The Alberta government maintains program unit funding continues to provide support to pre-kindergarten students under the new funding model.

Colin Aitchison, Press Secretary for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, provided the following statement:

“School divisions will continue to receive funding for each kindergarten child with severe disabilities or severe language delays through the new specialized learning support grant which ensures every student receives a consistent level of support throughout their K-12 education.”

Aitchison said additionally, the Lethbridge School Division is seeing their overall government funding increase to $111,462,596 for the 2020-21 school year, while the Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Separate School Division is seeing their funding increase to $52,005,034 for the 2020-21 school year.

According to Aitchison, every school authority continues to receive the funding they require to support their students.

(Funding profiles for every single school division can be found at:https://www.alberta.ca/assets/documents/edc-board-by-board-funding-2020-21-school-year.pdf”)

However, the Lethbridge School Division said education funding is complex, and the provincial figures don’t take into account the millions of dollars that were cut from school budgets in October of 2019.

Last month, the Lethbridge Public School Division released its preliminary budget, which includes cutting 31 educational assistant positions, most of which relate to funding reductions in the Program Unit Funding for Kindergarten supports.

Matisz said the people living these cuts know what the real impact is, and it will be their children who have to bear the burden of these changes. “They won’t get these years back. This is their future.”

Matisz said the government can call it a reorganization of resources, or use whatever terminology they like, but what it amounts to is that they are failing to provide an opportunity for children to thrive. “It’s disgusting, that the first thing the government cuts is children who are vulnerable who need us to be the voice for them and support them.”



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