Parents waiting to get assessments for kids facing learning and mental health challenges are asking that school councils be allowed to fundraise to cover the high costs — before it’s too late.
But the Calgary Board of Education has restrictions on where fundraising dollars can be directed, limiting money raised by school councils to learning resources like books, computers or sports equipment.
Dena Southas, who has a daughter at a CBE elementary school, says COVID and provincial underfunding for special needs kids have created increased needs for “psycho-educational assessments” to diagnose learning disabilities like autism, dyslexia, anxiety or developmental disorders affecting coordination or auditory processing.
Once a child receives a specific diagnosis, teachers and educational assistants can provide unique learning supports geared directly to student needs to help them get on the right track.
“Our school council’s fundraising association is currently spending excess money on trees and an outdoor classroom while 20 to 25 students have been waiting for psycho-educational assessments,” Southas said, adding that only one to two students a year get access to an assessment through the school.
“If the school could accept money for these assessments, the school council would fund them … but it cannot be done and these kids literally cannot get the help they need unless their parents can finance it.”
Southas discovered her daughter was struggling academically in Grade 1 when she volunteered in the classroom and saw that her daughter was shy, withdrawn and unwilling to ask for help.
“I saw her sitting at the back of the class, tears in her eyes, and not really know what to do,” Southas said.
“Girls can often be difficult to diagnose early. They might be quiet, or sweet or agreeable. They’re not necessarily the ones to throw their pencils or stomp their feet.
“But that doesn’t mean they don’t need help.”
Southas’ daughter was diagnosed with anxiety and ADHD by a pediatrician when she was in Grade 1. But it became apparent she may have other learning disabilities that would require a psycho-educational assessment.
Concerned her daughter could get stuck on a waitlist for years, Southas is currently in the process of having her daughter assessed privately to ensure she gets the classroom supports she needs.
But Southas worries for the hundreds of other students whose families may not be able to afford a private assessment with a psychologist, or even have the time or resources to advocate for their children in the public system.
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Megan Geyer, spokeswoman for CBE, explained prioritization of assessments is ongoing throughout the school year, and the students with the highest identified needs are assessed first.
“Families cannot pay out of pocket for a CBE psychologist to complete an assessment. They may choose to have an assessment completed by a private psychologist and share the results with the school,” Geyer said.
“In such cases, a school can use the assessment to create an Individual Program Plan, if appropriate.”
CBE confirmed funds raised through school councils cannot go towards psycho-educational assessments, explaining that it would create inequities in the system, with only schools that have strong parent councils able to pay.
“Financial contributions of school councils and school/parent societies support success for each and all students,” Geyer said.
“School councils and school/parent society raised funds are not intended to support individual students.”
Geyer added that waitlists for assessments can vary throughout the year, depending on student need.
Child psychologists and academics at the University of Calgary’s Werklund School of Education agree there can be long waitlists for parents to have children get psycho-educational assessments, adding that private costs can be prohibitive, ranging from $2,500 to $5,000.
Jennifer Turner, director at the U of C’s Integrated Services in Education clinic, which offers some assessments, says overall demand is rising, particularly since the pandemic and its impact on learning and mental health.
“A psycho-educational assessment is a really powerful tool to be able to understand how children learn, what barriers might exist. That information can be used by teachers and other specialists to tailor interventions.”
Turner added that her clinic also offers a limited number of lower-cost assessments, done by students and supervised by PhD psychologists, at a cost of $1,500.
“There definitely are waitlists, these assessments take an extensive amount of time to complete,” Turner said.
“And there is more need for assessment than there is capacity to meet that need.”
But Erin Allin, issues manager for Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, explained that as part of “cross-ministerial work” done with the Alberta Child and Youth Well-being Action Plan and through Budget 2022, the province has allocated an additional $110 million over three years to address specialized assessments, mental health and wellness and COVID-19 learning loss.
“This includes up to $10 million per year for 2022-23 and 2023-24 to support increased access to specialized assessments, with funding to ensure children and students who may not have had access to specialized assessments during the pandemic can be assessed by qualified professionals, including speech language pathologists, physical therapists, occupational therapists or psychologists.”
But Southas says parents are not feeling those supports in schools, and remain on long waitlists, with limited support staff, and the CBE’s inefficient, underfunded process to get children with complexities assessed.
“It’s very complicated, very challenging, but we will persevere. But there are other families that might not have the advocacy ability or resources to go private. Who knows how long they will have to wait with the lack of funding and resources.
“These kids need to get help before it’s too late.”