Deconstructing the School-to-Prison Pipeline: Guest Post


Dr. Starla Anderson (Ed.D.) is a retired educator who tutors youth and adults with learning disabilities, and lobbies for more support for them in public school

Some time ago I helped a middle-aged man learn to write the letters of the alphabet and join them together so that he could write his signature.  In all my 40-plus years of teaching, I have never felt more rewarded than when he beamingly showed me his handwritten signature—the first that he had ever written.  I asked him how he had managed to get by without knowing how to write his name and he showed me the scribble he had used, a scribble not unlike those that educated people sometimes use to have a signature that is difficult to copy.

These days, children are more likely to be tapping keyboards than using penmanship to write compositions but for my middle-aged student, a goal had been reached when he had been able to write a legible signature.  Because of an undiagnosed learning disability, he had been unable to learn in a classroom and was too often in trouble with teachers; by Grade 5, his dad took him out of school and taught him a building trade that he worked in for more than thirty years.  I met this middle-aged man when I tutored him in prison.

More than half of the prisoners I have tutored, who are working towards secondary-school completion, have learning disabilities. The most common disabilities among them are Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and dyslexia (a condition that affects the way the brain processes written and spoken language).  Neither of these conditions has anything to do with general intelligence, but the consequences of having these conditions without having adequate support to move forward developmentally can be devastating.

Some of the most recent facts about Canadians living with learning disabilities are summarized in a document handed out at a January conference organized by the Learning Disabilities Association of Vancouver, Supporting the Learning Disabled Child in Canadian Schools(2016):

  • Average to above average intellectual ability
  • More than 12% of all Canadians have a Learning Disability (Over 3 million people in Canada have a Learning Disability)
  • 35% of students identified with a Learning Disability drop out of high school, twice the rate of non-disabled peers.
  • Up to 70% of inmates in Canadian prisons are Learning Disabled
  • 43% of the LD population live at or below the poverty line

The B.C. Ministry of Education’s (2002) definition of Learning Disabilities is quoted in this program:  “A number of conditions that might affect the acquisition, organization, understanding or use of verbal or nonverbal information.”  This general definition does little to help identify school children with learning disabilities, but it is a recognition that there are children—and adults—whose learning is impeded because their brains do not easily receive and/or communicate knowledge and thought in the linguistic patterns of academic instruction.

It is important to recognize that it is not only students with learning disabilities who find it difficult to learn through the medium of academic language.  Many students from homes whose parents have little formal education, find it challenging because they are not familiar with the organization and assumptions of school language that they encounter for the first time when they begin kindergarten.  Aboriginal children, for example, have too often been misdiagnosed with having learning disabilities because of differences between the way they use language at home and at school.

My doctoral research with Aboriginal students who had dropped out of school revealed methods of instruction that helped them to understand how language is used in school by writing their own thoughts about what they knew from life experience and connecting it to what they were learning in the classroom (UBC, 1987, The Discourse Performance of Native Indian Students).  Many of the subjects in this study knew a lot about their family relations, communities, and cultural heritage, but all had difficulty learning in public school classrooms whether or not they had learning disabilities.

Some of the curriculum changes that are presently being implemented by the BC Ministry of Education will address the cross-cultural challenges faced by many Aboriginal students in our schools, but the Ministry has not yet addressed the need to provide adapted curriculum and methods of instruction for children with learning disabilities.  In fact, the Liberal government has resisted providing the support these children need since breaking its contract with teachers in 2002. After two teacher strikes and two back-and-forth BC Supreme Court appeals, it is now a waiting game to see whether the Canadian Supreme Court will agree that teachers have the right to negotiate class size and composition.

Our Liberal (small-c conservative) government is proud of its record of having balanced budgets and expects to be re-elected on that record.  Whether that expectation is justified remains to be seen.  Most British Columbians care about fairness and expect our public schools to serve all children’s learning needs.  Many of us are asking questions like:  Why doesn’t the BC budget allow for enough staffing to provide needed support for children with disabilities?  How many of the 70% of prisoners with learning disabilities weren’t able to complete secondary school because they did not receive the support they needed?  Is it really more cost-effective to have our public school failures in prison than to provide the support they need when they’re children and youth? And what are the individual and social costs of this government’s deafness to teachers’ decades-long message that help is needed for children and youth with learning disabilities?

As citizens we are entitled to answers to these questions from BC’s Minister of Education, the Honourable Mike Bernier.  When we write to him we might suggest that if he wants to raise graduation rates above 80%, the government needs to find funding to give students with learning disabilities the support they need to complete secondary school. These children can be successful learners if they receive enough one-on-one support to acquire the most potent motivator, confidence gained through success.

Parents of children with learning disabilities shouldn’t be left on their own to lobby for their children, and those children whose parents aren’t confident about approaching schools, let alone school boards, should not be left on their own to flounder and eventually drop from sight, many of them unable to find employment and ending up on the wrong side of the law.  Let’s write those letters.

Even if you don’t personally know anyone who is challenged with learning disabilities, you can imagine in your mind’s eye the middle-aged prisoner whose whole demeanor brightened when he showed me that he had learned how to write his name, and finally had a legible signature.

~Dr. Starla Anderson






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