“Before I started school, I literally could not speak,” says Kyle Hunter.
“My diagnosis before I started school was Pervasive Development Disorder (PDD), ” says the teaching assistant (TA) with the Cape Breton-Victoria Regional School Board (CBVRSB). But despite his struggles early on, Hunter succeeded in school, and has held his current job for three years.
Hunter decided to become a TA in Grade 11, after he benefited himself from various levels of support throughout his time in public school. “I chose to be a TA, because with my experience of having one, I felt like I needed to work in that field; I knew how it felt to struggle, having a learning disability” he says.
Hunter felt that his own experience with TAs, as well as his experience working with his brother, who also has PDD, could help him help children with learning disabilities be successful in the school system. He emphatically states that he never would have achieved his dream of going to Marconi Campus and becoming a teaching assistant without the extra support he received during his time in the public school system.
But Hunter is one of 28 teaching assistants whose permanent jobs were axed in June 2011, due to budget cuts mandated by the provincial NDP government. He and other laid off employees were given 12 months from that date to find a permanent position within the CBVRSB, or lose their jobs with the board. Hunter is currently filling a term position at John Bernard Croak Elementary School in Glace Bay.
In 2011 alone, there were 553 school support staff cut across the province, according to the Nova Scotia School Boards Association. 128 of these positions were eliminated due to declining enrolment, and the remaining 425 jobs were due to the budget cuts.
Before the 2011 cuts, Nova Scotia Education Minister Ramona Jennex issued a press release stating that she would “put children and learning first.” Jennex said she had “instructed school boards to protect students and special education.”
The press release went on to say that conditions of board funding reductions mandated that the cuts be made primarily through retirement (attrition) as well as major reductions to administration, while “maintaining quality in the classroom.”
Mary Jessome, school secretary at Seton Elementary in North Sydney and Second Vice President of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) 5050, the union local representing non-teaching employees of the CBVRSB, says ‘jobs cut through attrition’ is simply “a fancy word for layoffs... they’re still bargaining unit positions that were once occupied by somebody, but because the person resigned or retired, they’re not filling that position. The workload is still there, but the worker is not.”
Jessome says the CBVRSB cut 53.5 positions ranging from teaching assistants to cleaning staff, and that the extra workload has been an issue in all areas within the board. Cleaning staff, for example, have had to increase their workload significantly, trying to fill in the gaps left by their laid off counterparts.
But the majority of the job losses were “in the teachers’ assistant classification,” states Jessome. “The students obviously aren’t going to get as much support in the classroom as they had.”
Hunter agrees that the cuts are affecting everyone involved in the system, from students to employees.
“With the first round of cuts, I noticed it with students the most. I was [working] with a student last year, who this year doesn’t have a TA.” At the elementary school where Hunter works, there are three fewer teaching assistants on staff than the year before the cuts, and Hunter says that students with learning disabilities who don’t have the proper levels of support are not learning, not progressing. They’re regressing, leading to serious effects on their schooling, he says.
Hunter isn’t the only one concerned about how cuts to education are affecting learners with special needs. In February, Autism Nova Scotia spoke out against the province’s “Kids and Learning First” education plan, saying it did not meet the needs of students with “exceptionalities.”
And the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ Alternative Budget for Nova Scotia recently noted that “the proportion of children with disabilities in Nova Scotia is rising” steadily, from 3.8 percent in 2001 to 4.5 per cent in 2006.
Despite these concerns and other stories heard at a recent town hall meeting organized by CUPE 5050, school board member Fred Tilley, from Sydney Mines, said that “with regard to TAs an audit was completed which identified the number of positions required, based upon need.” Tilley admitted that it was very difficult to hear from parents struggling for their children to receive the appropriate support within the system. “Cape Breton appears to have a much higher need for teaching assistants, [but] unfortunately the funding formula from the province does not take this into account; therefore we are left to do the best that we can with the resources that we have,” said Tilley.
“Nobody likes to make cuts to their budget,” he said. “Unfortunately, when the funding that you receive is reduced it becomes necessary to cut the budget.” Tilley added that cuts to education will most certainly manifest themselves in different areas, like the health care and judicial system.
With the cuts that have already taken place, and a second round slated for June of 2012, Hunter feels that the reduction in support for children with learning disabilities will have broad effects. “You’ve got kids sitting in the classroom [with learning disabilities] who could be electricians, or teaching assistants. How are they supposed to get the support if there’s nothing there for them?”
Hunter says the lack of adequate support takes away from these students the possibility of a productive future. “It’s hard for them. Speaking from my own experience, it’s so hard. If I didn’t have the support that I had with teaching assistants, I never would have passed.
"I would have been lost in the system; I could have been one of those people that quit school because I didn’t have the extra help or no one would have given me the time. It would have been very frustrating and so disappointing.”
As the end of the school year approaches, Hunter is now worried that he may no longer be an employee with the board, facing a permanent layoff notice. He doesn’t want to leave Cape Breton, where he has a network of support.
Hunter says being a teaching assistant is the best job he can think of having.
“The best part of my day is seeing the smile on a kid’s face, knowing that it could take them five seconds or two hours to complete that worksheet or project, to know that I helped a student to learn, to progress. That’s probably the best thing I could ask for.”