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Theresa McMahon with her son Callum outside of their home in Brampton, Ont., on April 16.Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

Since January, Callum McMahon has been spending fewer hours in his classroom on the main floor of his Brampton, Ont., school, and more time with Grade 7 students upstairs.

It makes his mom nervous.

Callum is 13. He has a learning disability and was diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder four years ago, which means he’s prone to outbursts and other behavioural issues. He once ran away from school. When he’s frustrated, he often uses inappropriate language that has resulted in school suspensions.

A few years back, Callum was placed in an intensive support program, often referred to as a congregated or contained classroom, for small groups of children with intellectual or behavioural challenges. It’s a space within the school that provides more supports in the form of teachers, education assistants and social workers.

But Callum’s school district, the Peel District School Board, plans to shutter that class of five children by the end of the school year and transition him into a regular classroom – part of a continuing effort across the country to create more inclusive classrooms. The changes, however, push one of the more complicated issues in public education to the forefront: Are mainstream classrooms set up to accommodate the range of diversity we see in our students?

Advocates for inclusive education argue that children do better academically and socially in a regular classroom and that their classmates benefit as well. But many parents and educators think money is the real issue and are concerned that students with intellectual and developmental disabilities are not properly supported in mainstream spaces, where teachers already have a full class, and that can lead to disruptions, violent incidents and suspensions.

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A few years ago, Callum was placed in an intensive support program, often referred to as a congregated or contained classroom, for small groups of children with intellectual or behavioural challenges.Duane Cole

“I worry about him, I really do,” said Theresa McMahon, Callum’s mom. “I’m just really concerned with the level of support that he’s not going to be receiving next year.”

Prior to the 1970s, it was common for children with disabilities to be excluded from schools. However, lobbying efforts from families and advocacy groups and advances in pedagogical thinking prompted provinces and school boards to provide special education programs and services.

New Brunswick’s inclusive education policy calls for a common learning environment, where instruction must be primarily provided by the teacher. In British Columbia, elementary students, for the most part, are all in the same classroom irrespective of need. In both provinces, parents of children with disabilities have expressed concerns about increasingly being asked to pick up their children early, drop them off at school later or keep them home for indefinite periods because of behavioural issues. Teachers say they need more supports, especially when it comes to dealing with aggressive behaviour.

Ontario, too, has shifted to more inclusive classrooms. But many boards still have congregated classrooms, although their future is uncertain.

Buck: The rise of seclusion rooms represents the failure of inclusion in schools

Callum’s school board launched a review of general learning disability classrooms and behaviour classrooms two years ago. In the 2021-22 academic year, 31 congregated classrooms were shuttered. Another 22 were closed last year. And the Peel board plans to close 18 more, including Callum’s, in the fall.

Paul da Silva, an associate director at the board whose portfolio includes special education, said a provincial review in 2020 highlighted that racialized and marginalized children were disproportionately represented in Peel’s congregated classrooms. Students were less likely to graduate because they had fallen behind academically and could not access certain courses when they entered high school. Mr. da Silva said the board found a similar trend in its own internal audit.

By annually reviewing congregated settings, he said, the board looked to “disrupt” that practice and support students as they integrate into mainstream elementary classrooms. Some students may be readmitted to another congregated classroom at a different school, and others would attend a mainstream classroom where they typically share the services of an educational assistant with other children.

That’s not to say the Peel board will close all its special needs classrooms; there are more than 200 of them. “In a perfect world there would be no contained classrooms because all student needs could be met within the mainstream. But we understand that’s not the reality,” Mr. da Silva said.

There’s been concern in some quarters that several boards, particularly in Ontario, are facing deficits, and special needs classrooms are being eyed to save money.

Lyra Evans, the chair of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, said her board spends more than it receives for special education. By moving students into a mainstream classrooms, the board would find savings, she said, but it hasn’t made a decision yet on congregated classrooms.

“One of the goals of public education is to ensure that every student succeeds to the best of their abilities. I would love to make this decision based entirely on pedagogy,” Ms. Evans said. “I’d love to sit down and say, ‘What is going to get the best outcome for these students?’ Right now, I feel that question has become tainted by what we can afford.”

In Peel, Mr. da Silva said money did not play a role in the board’s decision on congregated classrooms.

“We really believe in inclusive education to improve academic outcomes for students. We find that it’s a way of really socializing both those who are in the mainstream and those who are moving in with special needs,” he said. It “provides equity across the system.”

At the heart of the issue lie fundamental questions about what equity in schools looks like for children with complex needs and how to balance the right to an education for students with intellectual or behavioural issues with the need to keep them, other students and teachers safe.

Kate Logue is a mother of two children with autism. Her daughter, Ruby, is in a mainstream classroom in Ottawa and receives some supports.

Her nine-year-old son, Desmond, requires more help and is in a congregated setting with five other children. Desmond is in Grade 4 but functions at a senior kindergarten level. He’s learning his numbers and letters.

His mother believes he would be lost in a regular classroom of more than 20 children.

“If a child is being removed from a classroom, that’s not inclusion,” said Ms. Logue, who is also the vice-president of community outreach at the Ontario Autism Coalition.

“The most inclusive environment for a child with high needs is an environment that supports them.”

Research shows that students with special needs either do better or no worse academically in inclusive settings. They are more likely to find friends, and children benefit from learning about and understanding each other, says Jacqueline Specht, the director of the Canadian Research Centre on Inclusive Education and a professor in the faculty of education at Western University in London.

In 2018, Prof. Specht and colleagues interviewed parents of children with disabilities in mainstream classrooms and in congregated settings. Schooling was “messy” in both settings, she said, and children were often sent home for behavioural issues or struggled in class.

However, those in regular classrooms were more involved in extracurricular activities and had friends. In high school, students in inclusive settings were earning credits toward graduation.

“If we look at all the research, it’s just better in inclusive settings, and so that’s really what we should be striving for. We shouldn’t continue to say, ‘Well, it’s hard, so we keep these separate settings,’ because those separate settings are not doing anybody any good in the long run,” she said.

From a practice perspective, Prof. Specht says provincial governments and school boards need to train teachers and provide the extra supports so an inclusive model can work.

Until that happens, some parents are not ready to give up their children’s special-needs classrooms without a fight.

Lisa Cook’s 11-year-old son, Brandon, has been diagnosed with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He also has learning disabilities. Brandon would struggle in school, become physically aggressive and use inappropriate language. He would sometimes tear up the classroom and force the evacuation of the other children. Ms. Cook would be called to pick him up early, his days were modified, and he was suspended.

Now he spends at most two hours a day in a regular Grade 6 classroom and the rest of the time in a contained room with five other children, a teacher, an education assistant and a child and youth worker.

But Ms. Cook learned this year that his support program, one of several at the Waterloo Region District School Board in Southwestern Ontario, was being closed and that he would be moved into a mainstream classroom in the fall.

“I knew in my heart I had to do something – that this couldn’t happen,” she said. Brandon was “thriving” in the program. His attendance and grades improved. He made friends.

Ms. Cook found other parents in a similar position. They created a social media group, and Ms. Cook and another parent pleaded with trustees at a board meeting in February to save the program.

Their efforts paid off. A month later, the board reconsidered its decision.

Ms. Cook was relieved. Learning in an inclusive classroom works for many children, she said, but not all.

“For me, when my child is in a regular classroom and he can’t physically be there, he is ultimately more excluded than included.”

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