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Langford mom starts own school amid lack of support for neurodivergent sons

Initially supported by multiple families, mother of two sons on autism spectrum foots bill herself
Max, left, and Tristan work away in the classroom their mom set up in their home. (Photo submitted)

Parents of children with learning disabilities are working to overcome massive challenges to meet their kids’ needs amid a lack of support, including in some cases setting up home schools.

Allison, a single parent of two kids from Langford, whose last name has been omitted due to fears of losing funding for her children’s education, said her kids weren’t getting the support they needed in the public school system.

Her sons Max, 12, and Tristan, 10, are both on the autism spectrum.

Tristan is high energy and would “often just be by himself running around in the halls or in the sensory room,” she said. Max is usually quiet, but finds a classroom environment over-stimulating and began to struggle with that scenario by age nine.

“He was just falling further and further behind and feeling worse and worse about himself,” Allison said of Max. “It’s just a downward spiral that he wouldn’t have been able to get out of, I don’t think, if he stayed in the public school system.”

When Max started showing signs of suicidal ideation – “that terrified me,” Allison said – she took him out of the public school system, in November 2019. She pulled Tristan out when COVID-19 hit and classes started being held over Zoom in 2020.

“(Tristan) couldn’t handle it and I just felt like there was really no support for him,” she said.

She tried tutors and private schools, but neither worked. Eventually, she decided the best thing was to set up her own school. By pooling provincial autism support funding and a distance learning grant, she built a classroom inside her home and, together with a couple of other parents with children in similar situations, hired a teacher and an occupational therapist to home school the kids, getting it all running in January 2020.

“They get way less funding than they would if they were in the school system,” she said. “But they’re getting way more support with the little funding they get, because it’s geared towards their specific needs.”

Through grants and distance learning companies, she has secured specific textbooks and a tailored curriculum which benefits her sons, resources to which the public school system doesn’t give them access.

RELATED STORY: Victoria autism support providers blindsided by provincial funding changes

In a joint statement, Sooke School District associate superintendent David Strange and district principal of inclusive education services Janine Brooks said SD62 provides “seamless continuation of supports designed to support student learning and goals set out in individual education plans.” Those resources include access to support staff and technology like Chromebooks.

“Relationships are a key part of our work with our students and families, as is personalized support and services (which) include a mix of whole class sessions, small group sessions and one-to-one sessions as needed,” the statement said.

Maintaining those connections “can be challenging,” they added, especially amid labour shortages.

“The district has replacement protocols and processes in place to back fill absences and we have staff in place to support learner needs,” the statement continued. “In today’s context this can be challenging, but we continue to work hard to ensure students are supported.”

Despite those efforts, Allison said, the public school system isn’t designed for neuro-diverse kids and leaves many to fall through the cracks.

“I don’t think they could have done anything to accommodate their needs, because they needed to be in a place with less people, and less overhead light, and just the kind of space where they can have time to themselves,” she said. “Sometimes (the school districts) just don’t have the resources to accommodate their needs without having a special class.”

ALSO READ: SD62 dealing with bus driver shortage, students unable to get bus

After some initial kinks, Allison got the home school running smoothly and her sons were learning better.

“Everything was going really well,” she said. “And then it just all fell apart in the last month.”

When one of the original children moved away, Tristan took their spot just after the pandemic began. When family living expenses on the Island became too great, the other two children left, one a year ago, the other in December. That left Allison covering the costs of the teacher and therapist on her own.

The teacher since then stepped away for medical reasons and then became pregnant, a situation that forced Allison to hunt for a new educator. In a post to a Victoria Facebook group, she put a call out for an education assistant to work 25 to 30 flexible hours a week. She found a replacement to help teach her kids, but it was a long process and she continues to worry about covering all the costs on her own.

“I’m a solo parent so I have to make money, I have to work, I can’t manage the school on my own. I need someone to do it,” she said. “I can manage it with the funding that I get and supplementing a little bit. But I’m kind of limited right now.”

The province announced in October plans to move away from individual funding for children with autism – $22,000 for those under age six, and $6,000 for those aged six to 18 – to a needs-based hub model by 2025. The province said switching models would help to accommodate approximately 8,300 more children who previously hadn’t qualified for funding. In a previous interview with Black Press, Minister of Children and Family Development Mitzi Dean didn’t comment on how the change would impact the funding each child gets, leaving Victoria parents worried.

In a November letter to Dean the First Nations Leadership Council stated it “wholly rejects” the new model, calling the decision a bewildering step backwards and out of line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In the meantime, Allison continues to work to get her children the education that works for them.

“It is kind of like a second job, putting this together, maintaining it, keeping it going – kids might leave, teachers might have babies. It’s a lot of work, time, money and just stress,” she said. “But for me it’s worth it, because my kids are thriving in this environment.”

Prior to doing home schooling, Tristan had not previously met academic expectations in any subject, “even though he’s very smart,” Allison said. But on his most recent progress assessment test, he met expectations in every area.

“He’s never done that before. So it’s really encouraging to see that they’re catching up and thriving.”

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