12/10/2017 05:10 EST | Updated 12/10/2017 09:21 EST

Parents fear changes to Toronto schools' gifted, special ed programs

TORONTO — Worried parents and advocates say many children will never fulfil their academic potential if the Toronto District School Board follows through on a proposal to dramatically restructure its gifted and special education programs.

The TDSB task force dedicated to making the board more accepting, inclusive and fair for low-income, racialized and otherwise marginalized students has drafted a report recommending, in part, that gifted students and students who need "special education" be integrated into regular classrooms.

"Resources and supports (would) be realigned so that all schools, at least every cluster of local schools, can offer a variety of specialty programs," the report says.

Teachers would receive special ed and gifted training and kids would still get the specially tailored learning they need, the proposal says.

But parents of children currently in gifted classes say the proposed changes would destroy the program, not reform it.

"The idea of inclusion is wonderful (and we should) make sure all the kids in the city have the same opportunities," said Gail Argensky, whose daughter is a Grade 10 student in Northern Secondary School's gifted program. "I think access is important too. But when you start talking about dismantling things that are working, I just don't get that."

TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said the board could not comment on the report because it's still only in draft form and may be amended before it is tabled at Wednesday's meeting of board trustees.

The trustees will recommend next steps based on the report, including changing the recommendations. 

"There will absolutely be more opportunity for the community to have input before any decisions are made by the board," the TDSB says on its website.

The TDSB's gifted program is lacking in racial diversity, and needs a total overhaul, said Carl James, a York University professor who specializes in the education of minority students.

But simply placing gifted students in regular-stream classrooms throughout the city will not fix structural inequities that make it less likely for black students, in particularly, to be in gifted classes. 

"The larger process of getting students identified as gifted will have to be looked at," James said.

Some parents may not know the gifted program is an option for their kids, while other families actively pursue the gifted designation, even having their child tested privately. 

"More importantly we have to look at the extent to which the gifted test might have inherent cultural biases, that might disadvantage some students," James said.  

"There is (also) the extent to which teachers identify some students and even suggest that they be tested for being gifted."

But kids who have already tested as gifted would likely be better off in classes of other gifted kids, James added.

Agensky's daughter, Amanda Gotlib, tested as gifted when she was in Grade 4, and entered gifted classes in Grade 7. Her time in the regular-stream classes was hard, Amanda said. She had trouble concentrating, and would take hours to finish even short assignments.

"I would have a lot of difficulty getting my work done," Amanda said. "And I have some techniques I use when I'm trying to listen or focus and a lot of regular-stream teachers don't really get that.... I often draw. I like to do art and doodling while the lesson is going on."

The term "gifted" gives people the false impression that kids like Amanda are effortlessly brilliant, Argensky said. The reality is their brains work differently from other kids' and they have different learning styles. They may not fit in socially with their peers, and often struggle with regular school work.

For kids with learning disabilities, behavioural issues and other special education needs, the task force proposal could be just the latest in a series of slashes to programming.

"We know that we are seeing cuts in the special ed realm all over Ontario," said Katharine Buchan, educational material co-ordinator with Autism Ontario.

"With the right supports, every student typically could be integrated in to a regular classroom, but for high needs students or some students with autism that's not always the answer," Buchan added.

There are already long-standing concerns about the burden placed on teachers by placing kids with special ed needs in regular-stream classes, said Andy Lomnicki, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario's Toronto chapter.

"There's nothing wrong with applying the lens of equity, but it can distort what your'e looking at and how you're trying to fix (equity problems)," Lomnicki said.

"An equitable lens could say that every student (should be) in the same classroom, but that doesn't necessarily mean it is serving their needs, or their parents needs, or the other kids in the classroom's needs, or the teacher's needs."