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Yukon special needs students moved off individualized learning plans

“I’m not hopeful, I’m worried for the children in our classrooms, I’m worried about the teachers.”
The Yukon Department of Education in Whitehorse on Dec. 22. The Department of Education is moving students off Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) as part of a system-wide overhaul of inclusive education, and Yukon’s non-governmental education experts are worried that the shift will cut costs and improve optics, but won’t improve student learning. (John Hopkins-Hill/Yukon News)

The Department of Education is moving students off Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) as part of a system-wide overhaul of inclusive education, and Yukon’s non-governmental education experts are worried that the shift will cut costs and improve optics, but won’t improve student learning.

“Without the legal protections that an IEP provides, chances are that many of these students who need very specific and consistent interventions will not be successful in secondary school,” says a letter addressed to Premier Sandy Silver on Dec. 3.

The letter is signed by the presidents and executive directors of the Yukon Teachers’ Association (YTA), Yukon First Nation Education Directorate, Learning Disabilities Association of Yukon (LDAY) Centre and Autism Yukon.

IEPs are an aspect of inclusive education baked into the Yukon’s Education Act. They guarantee that students who have special learning needs will receive the support they require, like educational assistants (EAs), occupational therapy, or speech and language support.

This year, the Yukon government moved 138 students off IEPs onto Student Learning Plans or Behavioural Learning Plans, according to the YTA. They also adjusted the definition of IEPs, so students who remain on these plans won’t receive a high school diploma.

“I was greatly disturbed by the changing definition of an IEP and a student learning plan…. They haven’t changed the Education Act, but what they’ve changed is policy, how they’re interpreting and delivering programming,” said YTA President Ted Hupé on Dec. 22.

“Right now, IEPs are the only things that the department really has to report on — there’s a statutory obligation that IEPs need to be followed, they need to be documented, they need to be updated two to three times a year.”

The department’s promise to parents that students will receive the same support on alternative learning plans doesn’t hold water without that statutory obligation, he explained. The change could leave parents to personally advocate for their children through schools already struggling with limited resources.

“So right now, when a student is moved from an IEP to a student learning plan, there’s less obligation of the Department of Education to provide services,” Hupé said.

Structural changes coming in the middle of an educational review

In 2019, the Auditor General of Canada issued a report that accused the Education department of failing to provide self-aware inclusive programming.

“With respect to inclusive education, we found that the Department did not monitor its delivery of services and supports to students who had special needs, nor did it monitor these students’ outcomes,” says the report.

The report recommended the Yukon government conduct a full review of its services.

Last February, UBC Ph.D. candidate Nikki Yee was hired to complete that review. It was slated for completion in June 2020 — a deadline waylaid by COVID-19 and adjusted to March 2021. In an interim report published in July, Yee recommends “starting by considering how greater supports might be created, in collaboration with diverse perspectives, for students with more intense needs.”

In the Dec. 3 letter, advocates expressed concern that Yee’s interim report side-stepped the Auditor General’s recommendations.

“The Yukon government’s planned complete and apparent avoidance of the OAG recommendations as part of the current review is deeply worrying and undermines the legitimacy and integrity of the review,” the letter says.

In the meantime, the Yukon government is implementing shifts to the provision of inclusive education before Yee’s review has been submitted.

“They’re changing definitions, they’re changing policy, they’re changing how things are being done even before the review is complete,” Hupé said.

Twenty-five per cent of IEP students were taken off their plans in the last year, he said. That signals major change to the delivery of inclusive education.

“This is huge — I’m not hopeful, I’m worried for the children in our classrooms, I’m worried about the teachers.”

Parents fighting to keep hard-won IEPs

A Yukon parent says they fought for their children with autism to receive IEPs, and the Education department is now pushing them off the plans.

“I think if you do that, you’re going to take away funding for an EA because if you have an IEP, it means you have really distinct needs, and that ties funding to various things,” said the parent, who requested anonymity due to concern that speaking out would adversely affect their employment.

The parent was able to secure IEPs for their children after several years of advocacy, they explained. Initially, the Department of Education claimed their children were too young to need IEPs, and that an assessment of documented needs was required. The department, which has limited capacity for testing, wasn’t able to provide that assessment. The Yukon parent then paid $2,500 for the assessments to be conducted privately, and then funded EA support for their children through Jordan’s Principle, a federal fund that supports First Nations children.

The parent also placed one of their children in private tutoring five days per week, which bumped the child’s literacy three grades in one year. That signalled capacity for academic success with one-on-one support, further necessitating their IEP, the parent explained.

“I had to advocate and fight, and fight, and fight, for almost three years for her to get the support, and I feel like that disadvantaged their education,” they said.

This year, the Yukon parent was told that if their children didn’t move off the hard-won IEPs, their children wouldn’t graduate.

“It seems discriminatory to me, actually, I don’t believe that because a child’s on an IEP, that means they can’t graduate,” the parent said.

“(My daughter) has the potential and ability to graduate. She just needs to have an (Individualized Education Plan).

“I was like, I still don’t feel comfortable with this. I feel like the department’s doing something sneaky here — they’re moving a ton of kids off IEPs, and I think what they’re doing is they’re making it look like the kids don’t have as much need as they do.”

Inclusive education shift dovetails with demand for external tutoring

When the Education department shifted away from IEPs this year, the LDAY Centre — a local organization that provides tutoring and educational support — saw their intake numbers double.

“We are absolutely seeing an increased demand for services,” said LDAY Executive Director Stephanie Hammond, though she couldn’t say whether the correlation was directly connected to the IEP cuts.

Hupé said he’s concerned that Yee’s interim report revealed that the Yukon government is looking for “efficiencies” in the inclusive education system.

“When you think about it, if you reduce the number of IEPs, you make the system look better. The problems aren’t going away, you’re just changing the classification,” Hupé said.

“Whether that’s a deliberate plan, we need more time to determine.”

Education department pledges effective support

The Department of Education declined an interview, but provided the Yukon News with an email statement.

“Any learning plan (IEP, Student Learning Plans, Behaviour Support Plans) is our commitment of support to students and their parents/guardians,” said an email from Julie Terry, Education spokesperson.

“None of the plans preclude students from receiving any specific supports. There have been no changes to the governing legislation – the Education Act – regarding a student’s eligibility for an IEP.

“We are committed to providing effective learning supports to Yukon students and continuously work to improve these services.”

The spokesperson noted that Yee’s completed review in March will influence service modernization. The Yukon government also launched an online tool and public engagement survey this month to collect the experiences of families and educators.

Contact Gabrielle Plonka at