‘It’s survival’

Teachers, parents and school staff tell of overcrowded classrooms, missing supports and a struggle to keep up at NDP-hosted education town hall

Ryan Meili speaks at an education town hall held in Prince Albert on Oct. 28, 2019. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

Tales of desks thrown across classrooms, classrooms with dozens of kids with individual needs and teachers overwhelmed and not knowing where to turn for help. Those were the types of stories told by educators, parents and administrators at a town hall hosted in Prince Albert by the provincial NDP Monday night.

The meeting was one of several being held across the province as the NDP seeks to receive input directly from those who work in Saskatchewan’s education sector. It’s the latest step the opposition party has taken, after releasing the results into a survey they conducted earlier this year, aimed at communicating their message that more needs to be done to improve and protect Saskatchewan’s public school system.

NDP education critic Carla Beck has gone so far as to call the current situation a “crisis.”

“I’m not going to apologize for it,” Beck told the room of about 30 people Monday night.

“If it is not a crisis, I don’t know what other word to use for it. It is perhaps a slow-moving crisis, and I would say the reason it is slow-moving is because everyone in every community we’ve been to has done their best to keep these cuts away from schools. We cannot any longer.”

Beck said that educators are willing to work more and to even spend money out of their own pocket, but that they feel like they don’t have the tools and supports they need to do the job.

“This is what we’re hearing day (after) day. When we stand up, the (education) minister can dismiss it. The minister should not and cannot dismiss the concerns we’re hearing from communities. That’s why we stood up and said this is a crisis and we intend to do something about it.”

Beck highlighted some of the findings of their survey —findings such as the 84 per cent of teachers, 77 per cent of educational assistants (EAs) and 55 per cent of parents who said learning conditions at their schools have worsened over the last three years. She highlighted the survey’s finding that 78 per cent of teachers and 65 per cent of EAs said staff morale has worsened over the last three years, and that 83 per cent of teachers and 86 per cent of EAs said they have more students with additional needs than three years ago — still, 41 per cent of teachers said they rarely or never have enough support to meet the needs of their students.

The survey also highlighted violence in Saskatchewan classrooms. Of those surveyed, 74 per cent of EAs and 42 per cent of teachers reported experiencing or witnessing violent incidents once a week or more. Thirty-eight per cent of EAs said they experience or witness violence every day.

Those same concerns were brought forward by some of the educators in attendance.

One teacher said they teach elementary school and have kids in Grades 6, 7 and 8 dropping out, or missing school for days at a time.

Another teacher said they support more inclusive schools, where students with more individual needs are integrated into the same classroom as everyone else, but only when the resources are there to back them up.

“The supports have not followed suit,” the teacher said.

“Our deaf students no longer have a sign teacher. We had a kid that did not know her ABCs. But you want them to be part of the classroom. It takes a lot of work just to get that child at a Grade 1 reading level. That’s the problem. We don’t have these supports. Of course, a kid is going to be frustrated and the teacher is going to be frustrated when they don’t have the supports in the classroom.”

The teacher continued.

“What’s going to happen with all of these kids that don’t have any of these skills? What are they going to do after high school? We haven’t trained them. That’s my fear.”

It’s not just students with more needs who are hurting.

A second teacher lamented that they hadn’t been able to provide any enrichment to their higher-achieving students this year.

The teacher said they have over 30 kids in their classroom. Five are learning English as a second language. About a dozen are reading far below their grade level. What it’s meant is that the students who are getting 80 or 90 per cent don’t get any chance to be challenged, or to get any attention from their teacher.

“I don’t have time …. I just don’t without an EA in there,” the teacher said.

Then, she added, behavioural problems emerge.

“When someone does throw a desk, what do I do?”

“You’re only reaction is survival. It’s survival,” another teacher interjected.

“It is,” the first teacher agreed. It’s survival.”

The teacher said they didn’t object to having students who need more attention, or who have more needs, in their classroom. But, they said, they’re missing the supports to do so.

“I can deal with my (English as an additional language) students and my (students reading) below grade level if I have the background to work with that. I don’t have that background. I don’t have that capability.”

As the needs pile up, teachers say they’re feeling overwhelmed.

One teacher spoke about having kids battling thoughts of suicide, or needing a speech pathologist, or reading far below grade level, and not being able to get help for those students.

“I’m feeling burnt out,” they said.

“I don’t know what to tell the parents. I’m at wit’s end. I have no clue how to meet their needs. All I could do for one parent was give them a hug and say a prayer. Because that’s how I feel, on a wing and a prayer.”

Beck said those teachers’ stories are similar to the ones they’d heard across the province.

“I’ve heard teachers say, it’s a good day when I get to teach. It’s a good day when I sit down and actually get to think about learning,” she said.

“We’re talking about the things we’re doing in classrooms just to keep our heads above water. We have a problem and we can’t fix it unless we acknowledge it. So much time is being spent putting out fires in classrooms, teachers are overjoyed when they actually get to teach.”

The conversation then turned to solutions. Several ideas were proposed, for what’s needed inside the schools and outside in the greater community.

Parents in attendance got involved, too, speaking about what supports they were able to find that finally helped their students.

It’s that approach Beck said she wants to bring forward.

“Just throwing money at this problem is not going to fix it entirely. If we put all of the money in tomorrow that we needed to, we would still have issues with relationships that have been strained and deteriorated over years and years of rubbing over scarce resources,” she said.

The future

NDP education critic Carla Beck speaks at an education town hall held in Prince Albert on Oct. 28, 2019 as MLAs Nicole Rancourt and Ryan Meili look on. (Peter Lozinski/Daily Herald)

While teachers, administrators, other education staff, parents and community members had a lot to say about the struggles faced in classrooms, that’s not the only thing they gathered in Prince Albert Monday to speak about.

They also talked about solutions, what they would like to see moving forward to build a better school system.

The gathering was one of several education town halls being hosted by the opposition NDP throughout Saskatchewan. The NDP says the events provide a chance to hear what’s going on in the education system.

One message was clear — more resources are needed. But both Beck and NDP leader Ryan Meili stressed that’s not the whole story.

“Money isn’t enough, but you still need enough money,” Meili said, “to hire enough teachers, enough educational assistants, enough teacher librarians, enough supports to … support the system. You also need to make sure you’re treating teachers and all of the education team well with decent wages and decent working conditions.”

Meili said current education funding levels aren’t sufficient. He argued that for school divisions, it’s no longer about finding efficiencies but removing essential programs.

“Let’s get back to adequate funding, then we can get back to the more innovative ways of approaching curriculum, providing supports within and outside the classroom. If we’re going to do well 10, 20 years down the road, the most important place to invest is in our kids today.”

Beck turned to the gathered crowd. If she could snap her fingers and ensure proper funding, how should it be used? she asked. What sorts of supports or programs do people in Prince Albert want and need?

One parent spoke up about their child. The child had difficulties and was violent in the classroom. A good day for the parent was when they could go a day without getting a phone call from the school.

But when the student was transferred into a program at a different area school, the only one the parent was aware of in Prince Albert, within a week of that programming, there were no more violent episodes.

“It’s meeting (the) needs and it’s highly resourced,” the parent said. “There’s no way this community only needs one.”

Another proposal floated at the meeting was to bring back community school coordinators. People in those roles helped families overcome financial, personal and institutional barriers to a child’s education. Educators lamented that at some schools they’re gone. They’ve noticed a sharp decline in attendance and school engagement in places the coordinators are missing. The jobs they did now fall to teachers, one commenter said Monday.

It was suggested that ensuring there is enough funding to support community school coordinators would help reduce the burden on teachers and increase participation in the classroom.

Another suggestion aimed at letting teachers get back to teaching, other than ensuring the proper supports, such as speech-language pathologists, educational assistants and other supports are in place, was taking a look at the way new curriculum is implemented.

A teacher said when new curriculum came in, it used to be ready to go with an activity package and other materials to go one. Now they said, all they get are indicators and outcomes and they have to figure out the rest for themselves. That’simpossible, they said, when dealing with multiple new programs at once and also dealing with more students with more intensive needs in the classroom.

An administrator spoke up about curriculum review as well.

“Divisions used to receive funding when new curriculum came in …. So they could provide materials.”

It also gave teachers time to learn the new material in a way that would work for the local school community.

“That hasn’t been in place for eight to ten years of renewal. On top of that, they’ll put in so much new curriculum at one time that it’s absolutely overwhelming,” the administrator said.

‘We’ve heard from our teachers to try to teach five new (pieces) of curriculum in one classroom in one year, with all of the other stuff you’re managing to deal with it’s impossible.”

The administrator said that a response to those concerns was scaling back new curriculum, instead of providing more support. Now, the administrator said, they’re stuck without support and with outdated curricula they aren’t allowed to update themselves.

The discussion then turned to what can and should be expected of the education system.

“We’ve put a lot on the plate of eduction. We need to decide what we need education to do, what we can resource from other ministries,” Beck said.

“The first order of business needs to be ensuring kids have what they need and then we figure out where those resources come from. We’re (arguing) it’s your business, it’s your business, and kids are falling through the cracks.”

Beck said what the province needs is a community approach as opposed to a silo-by-silo approach. She also said each community needs more say to determine what works best for them.

Those in attendance agreed that more has to be done outside of education. Stories were told of kids whose struggles at home follow them into the classroom.

“It strikes me that you can’t talk about addressing someone’s problems without talking about poverty,” someone said at one point in the evening.

“We need supports for families outside of the education system<’ a second person added.

“Our own students … say one of their biggest issues is they don’t have parenting skills because their parents don’t have parenting skills. They’re just the adults who live in the home and provide the stuff. Parents need supports.”

Meili agreed.

“We need to invest in schools, but we’ll never really fix this unless we’re addressing poverty and the root causes of a lot of the dysfunction we’re seeing.”

The question of funding

The Sask. Party and NDP have been discussing the issue of education funding for some time.

Two budgets ago, funding was cut from the education budget. As the Sask. Party likes to point out, that funding has since been restored.

The NDP, though, argues that while the dollars might be back, funding growth hasn’t kept up with classroom growth. They argued Monday night that per-student funding has decreased by $275 since 2014. They also argued that more resources should go to areas of higher need.

But the Ministry of Education argues that it’s not quite that simple.

“The ministry does not allocate funding to school divisions on a per-student basis as the per-student approach is not an appropriate method to provide fund9ng, measure funding equity or compare funding levels among school divisions,” the ministry said in a written statement.

The funding model, they said, developed in consultations with school divisions, uses enrolment as one factor but takes into account other factors such as small rural schools being unable to have the same staffing per student as urban schools, higher transportation costs in rural areas, very small “schools of necessity” that are a great distance apart, and supports for learning, using socio-economic indicators such as low income, transiency, language spoken at home and foster care to address the specific students needs of each school division.

“Over the years, recommendations from divisions to further improve the equity of the model have been incorporated into the current funding model.”

The province also said that it is school boards who are responsible for determining staffing requirements, not the ministry of education.

“The ministry does not direct divisions as it relates to the hiring of teachers, non-teaching support workers or educational assistants,” the ministry said.

“School divisions are in the best position to assess the needs of the students in their school communities and make staffing decisions accordingly.”