Change is schools' opening theme Teachers' agreement expires today

David Whalen
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With changes underway to improve special needs programs and class sizes, not to mention labour negotiations around the corner, 2008-2009 could prove to be a landmark year in education.

In 2006, an independent commission was struck by the Department of Education to review the province's system for special needs students, known as the Individual Support Services Plan (ISSP) and Pathways program.

Sean Noah, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association is looking forward to see how new school regulations will work and to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement with the province. Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

With changes underway to improve special needs programs and class sizes, not to mention labour negotiations around the corner, 2008-2009 could prove to be a landmark year in education.

In 2006, an independent commission was struck by the Department of Education to review the province's system for special needs students, known as the Individual Support Services Plan (ISSP) and Pathways program.

In June, the department announced it would implement the majority of the commission's recommendations to streamline processes for special needs students and teachers.

One notable change is an improvement to forms used to identify special needs, or Pathway Two, students. Under the new system, a Pathway Two student won't automatically be set up with an ISSP - a change which, hopefully, will translate into less paperwork for teachers and special needs specialists.

The province's teachers' union hopes the change will make life better for teachers and students by taking up fewer resources.

"It's going to help teachers have more time to do other things," said Sean Noah, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association (NLTA).

However, Noah thinks there's still work to be done. He would like to see more special needs teachers and guidance counsellors in the system. At present, there is one guidance counsellor for every 500 students. Noah would like to see that ratio drop to one for every 250.

"The needs are great and diverse and as a result we need more specialist teachers," Noah said.

Better parent-appeals process needed

There's also demand for the parent-appeals process to be improved.

If a parent disagrees with a decision regarding their child's path, that decision can be appealed. However, Ruby Hoskins, the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils, said parents have to appeal to the same body that made the initial decision.

"In their eyes, the process is effective, but we're asking for an independent appeals process to deal with issues that come up," Hoskins said.

Noah is also encouraged by changes to the province's allocation model for teachers, designed to limit class sizes. Grades 4 and 7 will now be capped at 25 and 27 students, respectively. Grades 1, 2, and 3 were capped at 25 students last year and grades 5, 6, 8 and 9 will all be capped by 2010.

However, Noah would like to see a cap for kindergarten and high school teachers. High school classes in urban areas often top 40 students.

"I think with some collaborative work, we'd be able to come up with a cap for our high schools," Noah said.

There's also concern about the provincial mathematics curriculum. Hoskins said there's a lack of formalized support for high school students struggling with math.

"There haven't been any extra supports put in for the high school students and that's one area of concern that we've identified with the Department of Education," Hoskins said.

Noah noted that a new needs-based profile is now in place for allocating teachers. If baseline allocations aren't sufficient, schools can apply to their districts in the fall for more resources. The districts will then submit a district profile for budget consideration.

"There's an opportunity for schools to make their case if the need is there," Noah said. "Parents need to be aware that a needs-based profile is out there because it could mean more teachers for the schools that their (children) attend."

Teachers' agreement expires today

Noah also looks forward to labour negotiations between the NLTA and the province in late September. The teachers' collective agreement expires today.

"Teachers in this province have had eight years of zero per cent increases in the last 16 years. You can see what that's done if take into account the cost of living and the various strains and stresses on all of us," Noah said. "We expect a very significant increase in salary and allowances."

Besides salary increases, Noah said the NLTA wants to ensure there are guaranteed personal and family leave allowances for teachers.

Recently, Premier Danny Williams has said a deal struck with the Canadian Union of Public Employees, in which workers were given a salary increase of 20 per cent over four years, will serve as the model for all negotiations with public-sector employees.

"The premier has been clear that the CUPE deal is the template," said Finance Minister Tom Marshall. "I look forward to a collective agreement that's responsible and reasonable and fair to our employees and meets the long-term public interest of the people of the province."

david_whalen@hotmail.com

Organizations: Individual Support Services Plan, Department of Education, NLTA Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of School Councils Canadian Union of Public Employees

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