National Newswatch

HALIFAX — Nova Scotia is spending another $15-million to bolster services and programs for students with special needs in the classroom, pledging to hire 173 more inclusive education specialists, teachers, and non-teaching staff this September.

The money for year two of a five-year rollout of changes for inclusive education includes more than $3-million for training and development, while the province will also work on a $100,000 pilot program with Autism Nova Scotia to train education assistants to work with students who have autism.

Education Minister Zach Churchill said the additional supports added this year include 18 guidance counsellors, 11 autism teacher specialists, 30 education assistants, 32 child and youth care practitioners and 13 African Nova Scotian and Mi'kmaq student support workers.

"No one said changes would happen overnight," said Churchill. "It is a process, but we are making a sincere and urgent effort to help as many classrooms and students and families as possible and as quickly as possible."

Last year, the province also spent $15-million to add 191 positions to schools. The new supports bring the total to 364 new, inclusive education positions as the province works to meet recommendations made by the Commission for Inclusive Education, which released a report in March 2018.

That report called for a five-year plan to implement recommendations that included the addition of up to 700 new education specialists to assist students.

The commission estimated about a third of the province's 118,000 students need some form of support.

Churchill said this year his department will also hire an independent academic to evaluate the progress being made within the education system. He said reports by the evaluator will be made public.

"We want to know if we're helping our students achieve higher levels of success academically .... We're looking at various data points — obviously grades is one, attendance is another, and also the behavioural data that comes in as well," he said.

The minister said the move is a recognition that the "stakes are high" when it comes to students and their futures.

The Halifax Regional Centre for Education, the province's largest school region, will get most of the new positions with 54, followed by the Cape Breton Victoria Centre for Education, with 24.5, and the Chignecto Central Regional Centre for Education with 22.

Cynthia Carroll, executive director of Autism Nova Scotia, said her organization is encouraged by the diversity of the positions announced Thursday and believes multi-disciplinary teams working in collaboration with classroom teachers will "benefit all students."

Carroll said the first year of changes has produced mixed results as far as the parents and families her organization represents are concerned.

"I think overall its been positive," she said. "But this is something that's going to evolve. As we put together and increase these multi-disciplinary teams, we'll start to see better supports for teachers in the classroom setting ... but that is going to take time."

Progressive Conservative Tim Halman, a former teacher, said he does see potential for the increased supports announced by Churchill, although he added that as an MLA he has also heard mixed reviews about the impact of last year's changes.

"I want to see how this will impact on the ground and how it's set out in the system," he said.

The new supports bring the total to 364 new, inclusive education positions added across Nova Scotia's education system.

Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press

Click here for more political news headlines