Yukon’s Education minister says top-down decision-making won’t jive with people living in the territory.
But that’s what the president of the Yukon Association of Education Professionals says is happening now, and it’s leaving behind students with learning difficulties and special needs.
In an April 5 phone interview, Ted Hupé said bureaucratic changes to education are not making a substantive, positive difference for the most vulnerable students.
“I’ve been asking people who are in the schools and they’re saying they haven’t seen the difference. Things have been difficult, and COVID hasn’t made it any better,” he told the News.
“Vulnerable students are still not getting the services,” Hupé said, adding that “kids are not getting what they need. Resources are not where they feel they need to be.”
‘No substantive action’
Hupé leads one of four groups — along with Autism Yukon, LDAY Centre for Learning and Association of Yukon School Councils, Boards and Committees — that penned a joint letter dated Jan. 4 to Education Minister Jeanie McLean.
“We hoped the alarms raised in the 2019 auditor general’s (AG) report would result in some immediate positive changes for students, schools and parents, as well as with interactions with partner groups,” the letter reads.
Since 2019, the Education department has commissioned a review of inclusive and special education and hosted an education summit. The letter says the department’s long-term plan for education following those two actions “may have the potential, over time, to be positive.”
However, the letter also lays out that “no substantive action has been taken in the last two years and, in fact, it appears the current approach seems to be at the expense of addressing the current well documented needs of many students in the system.”
That independent review on inclusive education, conducted by Dr. Nikki Yee, backs up the previous auditor general’s report that shows the territory is failing to support students with diverse needs.
When pressed on the topic of inclusive and special education by Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers and NDP Leader Kate White during question period on April 4 and 5, McLean said April 5 she has been “really clear in terms of our commitment to work with partners.”
Her list of partners named the Yukon Association of Education Professionals, as well as Autism Yukon, the Learning Disabilities Association of Yukon, the Yukon First Nation Education Directorate and “many others.”
“We need to bring everyone along with us. Making top-down, unilateral types of decisions, I think, would not be acceptable to Yukoners,” McLean told legislators.
“To realize the change that we’re seeking, we need to help people to trust in our intentions and do the hard work to create the change that needs to happen — again, a long time in the making.”
McLean admitted it has been a tense process.
“I know that there is an inherent tension between getting to action and swift response and taking the time needed to build trusting relationships,” she said. “That is what we’re committed to doing.”
When asked during question period about what substantive changes have been made since the auditor general’s 2019 report, Minister McLean responded there has been a complete review of inclusive education, the universal child care model has been launched, a First Nation school board has been established, a data sharing memorandum of understanding has been signed and the student outcome strategy is underway.
Support isn’t ‘filtering down’
Hupé disagreed with the minister’s assessment of what constitutes substantial changes. In the interview, he compared each of the minister’s points with what he had been seeing on the ground.
For instance, Hupé called the inclusive education review a “very top-down” and “bureaucratic” work plan that isn’t necessarily student-centric.
“It’s not a kid-centered document. It’s a plan that sets direction for the department,” he said.
“Minister McLean has some good things to say, but it’s not necessarily, at this time, filtering down to tangible support for vulnerable kids.”
Hupé said the final straw for him dates back to the fall of 2019, when the department moved students off Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) as part of a system-wide overhaul of inclusive education.
“That’s what got everyone alarmed, because then the request for services through [LDAY Centre for Learning] and Autism Yukon started climbing [meanwhile] the legal obligations to have services provided to kids on an IEP were being diminished,” Hupé said.
“The Student Learning Plan has a different level of obligation than an IEP – an IEP is a legal document. There’s a legal obligation for the department to provide services if a child is on an IEP and it just changed everything.”
He said last year there was a vote in the House to reverse that policy, “but we still find schools are being told no, no, no, we don’t want this child to be put on an IEP, in practice.”
IEPs guarantee that students who have special learning needs will receive the support they require, like educational assistants, occupational therapy, or speech and language support.
Hupé acknowledged the problem is complex and solutions won’t be uniform for each school’s situation.
“It’s farflung. There’s so many different things happening in so many different schools, and each school is sort of addressing the needs the best way they can,” Hupé said.
“It’s okay to check the boxes. It’s okay to say, ‘Okay, we’re going to do this,’ but if it doesn’t get to our kids in a timely manner, we’re still talking to the wind.”
Work is underway: Education department
In an email statement, Education spokesperson Kyle Nightingale told the News that his department is working to launch new initiatives in spite of pandemic challenges.
He said McLean responded directly to the concerned groups’ Jan. 4 letter.
“We are working with our partners and stakeholders to create schools that are inclusive, that build on student strengths and ensure that every child feels connected and supported to thrive,” Nightingale wrote.
— With files from Gabrielle Plonka and Haley Ritchie
Contact Dana Hatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org