Cynthia Vukets, STAFF REPORTER
Halton’s public school board must treat its special education students fairly and fix its two-year wait list for assessment, says Ontario’s education minister.
The issues raised in a Toronto Star article showing gifted students are being assessed while their autistic and learning disabled peers continue to wait for testing and support are troubling, Leona Dombrowsky said in an interview.
“Obviously there are families who feel that the board is not responding adequately to the special education needs of children,” she said, adding that Halton’s trustees must act. “We believe that all students, regardless of their exceptionality, should be treated fairly.”
The Star revealed that some 360 senior kindergarten students will be tested for giftedness this month for a program just approved in November. Those gifted assessments are diverting board psychology staff from testing 700 other students currently on a waiting list for special needs assessments.
The current wait for a psychoeducational assessment — necessary for a child to be identified as having special needs and to receive extra classroom support — is from 15 months to two years in Halton.
The expansion of the controversial Grade 1 gifted program has caused an uproar among parents of special needs students, who say this is yet another example of the board catering to an elite group of students at the expense of others.
Last week, the Star outlined the situation of parents like Allison McDade, whose son Joe, 9, waited 13 months before an assessment for his learning disability began this week. Sam, 13, is still on the waiting list. Sylvia Jones, the opposition critic for children and youth services, brought Halton’s wait list up in the Legislature after reading about the McDade family.
“The wait list for assessments in Halton can be as high as two years already and yet trustees in Halton have acknowledged that this change is going to push children who need special (education supports) in the classroom back to the back of the line again,” she said.
She later told the Star the wait list was worrisome and urged the school board to “deal with the holdups.”
The board has since promised to table a report looking at ways to reduce wait times at a meeting Wednesday evening.
“(That will include) measures to find ways to process psychological assessments so that the wait list is reduced,” said education director David Euale.
When asked if those “measures” would mean the board directed extra money to special needs assessments or hired more psychoeducational consultants to perform the assessments, Euale said: “Both. We’re going to attempt to find ways to pay for additional psych assessments, for sure.”
McDade said she hopes the board will hire more consultants and pay them to work through March break and the summer vacation to clear the wait list.