VTA gives lesson in class size realities

Bruce Cummings presented his findings on the real meaning behind class size and composition.

On paper, a class of 25 students may not appear overwhelming, but according to the president of the Vernon Teachers’ Association, the numbers only tell half the story.

At Tuesday’s Vernon School District board meeting, Bruce Cummings presented his findings on the real meaning behind class size and composition.

Using a Grade 9 math class as an example from last year, Cummings said at first glance, the class size of 21 students sounds ideal. But when the composition of the class is taken into consideration, it paints a different picture.

In this particular class of 21, seven have been identified by the ministry as having special needs, with six requiring extensive daily support in the learning centre with direct instruction from a learning resource teacher (LRT).

“These are not huge classes until you look at the number of special needs students, so what you don’t see in the Bill 33 process and in the (recently presented) superintendent’s report is the needs, and I guarantee that all of the schools will have classes like this, but they don’t show up when we look at class size.”

Cummings reviewed the language used in teachers’ collective agreement prior to 2002.

“Our collective agreement was something that was between the school board and the union, something we all agreed upon, this is not something that is teachers only,” he said.

Some of that language states that maximum class sizes can be exceeded by 10 per cent before any assistance is provided, and when provided it will be in the form of additional professional staff.

“We’re talking about more teachers,” he said.

The old language states that to ensure all students receive adequate attention, no more than two students with special educational needs shall be integrated at the same time into any one regular classroom.

This number shall be exceeded only by mutual agreement of the board and the VTA.

Cummings went through all of the staffing information provided to him in June, and outlined what that actually means in the classroom.

“I came up with $1.36 million for about 17 specialty teachers because my estimate is that we’re about 17 teachers short. The old language had  flexibility and lots of consulting involved with it.”

A written report, “a day in the life at an elementary school,” provides a snapshot of an intermediate classroom of 26 students: five with ministry codes who receive varying levels of support, from the LRT or a CEA, depending on the time of day and who is available.

Written by the LRT for this particular classroom, she states that most of her school’s support staff are 20-hour workers who are finished by lunchtime.

“Two of the 26 children have serious emotional and behavioural challenges which can lead to full melt downs, sometimes multiple times a day. Only one of these children is ministry-identified. This is very disruptive for the rest of the children to deal with.

“The contributing factors,” she said, “are inconsistent attendance, families in crisis, poverty, frequent moving and basic needs not getting met at home. We try our best to get to these children but our time is spread very thinly.”

Cummings emphasized that the issue of class size and composition is the No. 1 reason teachers are currently on strike.

“Right now, it’s mainly about composition, not class size, and it was also the reason we went on strike in 2002. There has to be recognition for more support for the education system, which is stripped down to bare bones, and not in good shape.”

Cummings said when the superintendent’s report on class size and composition was presented to trustees recently, as required by the School Act, it only told half the story.

“When you accepted that report, you were in compliance with Bill 33, but it doesn’t scratch the needs of the system, and I hope you make it better known to BCPSEA (BC Public School Employers’ Association). We know it’s been addressed because the (Bills 27 and 28) legislation was deemed unconstitutional, but the message has to come from more than just teachers and that’s what I’m hoping for from the board of trustees.”

Board chairman Bill Turanski said at the moment, there is little trustees can do.

“The situation is currently in the Supreme Court, and Justice Griffin said the BCTF must negotiate directly with the province to resolve that issue, and they have until April to do it,” said Turanski.

“We don’t even know what BCTF demands are, we’re not getting much information. If the ruling was eventually that should be included in the collective agreement, then we’re in a position to offer some support but at this point BCPSEA is not involved at all.”