N.B. needs a special education lifeline

A gaping hole exists in New Brunswick’s Special Education safety net

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Paul-BennettHALIFAX, NS Jun 3, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Two years ago, Korey Breen’s son was struggling in elementary school. He was suffering from debilitating fear, anxiety and loss of confidence.

The dark clouds lifted when the Moncton mother of three found an educational lifeline in a tiny, home-like school serving kids with severe learning challenges. There, he finally felt safe and accepted.

Finding a place like Riverbend Community School was a godsend, and only the beginning of that struggle to turn her son’s life around. “Raising a child with special needs and severe learning disabilities and no financial support has been extremely difficult and takes everything we have,” she said.

Struggling students in Moncton, N.B., have very few options outside the regular mainstream public school system. For elementary students with severe learning challenges and their families, Riverbend is the only option, but out of reach for some, with its $11,500 yearly tuition fees.

My recent report, A Provincial Lifeline, published by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), demonstrates that a gaping hole exists in New Brunswick’s Special Education safety net. Since 2004, the gap has been closed in Nova Scotia with the adoption and expansion of that province’s unique Tuition Support Program. It is designed to meet the needs of hundreds of others struggling on the margins of the regular school system.

Beacon of hope for special education students

New Brunswick now has a school providing a beacon of hope. It could easily serve as a pilot school for a new approach embracing the full continuum of special education support services.

Since its inception as a Day School in September 2013, Riverbend has been discovered by a growing number of families. They are attracted by the passion of its youthful director, Rebecca Bulmer, and often desperate for a special program designed to respond to their children with such complex needs.

special education
Providing a lifeline for our most vulnerable children and youth makes sense

“If you have a struggling and confused child in your life, we can help,” Bulmer says. “We can replace fear and anxiety with pride and success.”

The Moncton school for high risk students is filling the vacuum in the system. Struggling students and their parents are finding Riverbend on their own because it is outside the system and funded entirely by fee-paying parents.

Like most such independent ventures, it exists because of the commitment of its founders, Rebecca and her mother, Priscilla Wilson, a retired school teacher who opened a Moncton tutoring centre in 2008.

Out of that small project emerged Riverbend, a growing presence with 10 day students and some 40 students enrolled in its after-school tutoring programs in reading and mathematics. All are attracted by the commitment to “discover the potential” in each child and to provide “the proper intervention” needed to strengthen their “resilience” and give them back the feeling of success. For many families, it’s a financial struggle to keep the children there.

The Nova Scotia Tuition Support Program (TSP), initiated in September 2004, is providing the bridge for many families without the financial means to pay much in the way of tuition fees. The TSP works on the assumption that students can eventually be “transitioned” back into the regular system.

Tuition costs covered

Funding covers most of the tuition costs to attend designated special education private schools (DSEPS) in Nova Scotia. At a cost of $2.5 million a year, it serves some 225 students attending three designated schools in six Nova Scotia locations.

Since my AIMS report, the TSP has been further improved in Nova Scotia, but has yet to appear in either New Brunswick or Prince Edward Island.

Families that are in – or near – crisis have the support they need. Since February 2012, it’s easier to qualify, and parents have more secure support, a blessing for those in need of financial assistance to pay the tuition fees.

Specialized learning disabilities schools like Moncton’s Riverbend deserve the opportunity to be recognized, and extending similar tuition support would help broaden accessibility in N.B., a province where an estimated 1,000 children suffer from these challenges.

Providing a lifeline for our most vulnerable children and youth makes sense. It helps to reduce potential long-term social and economic costs, and in Nova Scotia is already helping to produce happier families and more productive young citizens.

Paul W. Bennett, Director of Schoolhouse Consulting, is the author of Extending the Educational Lifeline published by the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS.ca).

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