Gerry Mazer was Deputy Superintendent of the schools for the Grande Prairie School District in the early 1970s. At the time, there was a lot of talk around the province about the responsibility of public schools for the education of handicapped children. Special education classes for mildly handicapped children were in place, but there were no classes available for the moderate to severely handicapped.
Parental pressure to have the schools take responsibility evolved until discussions with the Association for the Mentally Retarded began. The Association was running the Peace School of Hope, which was a segregated school funded partially by grants, fund raising and also by donations.
In the early 1970s, there was a formal takeover of the Peace School of Hope by the public school system. Not the least of the issues to deal with was the certification of the teachers who were working at the school. Lorne McLeod was the principal of the school then and was involved in the process whereby the Alberta Teacher’s Association and the government Teachers’ Certification Board allowed the instructors to teach in the public system with temporary teaching certificates as long as they upgraded their qualifications. It was quite an onerous task for some of the teachers, who were already in mid-life and not willing to undertake years and years of university education. Some of the teachers at the Peace School eventually went on to receive their teaching degrees.
The school ran on location and was still segregated until about 1973, when the philosophy of integration became a topic of discussion provincially. There were many professionals who believed that the handicapped children should be “in regular schools, rubbing shoulders with regular students.”
There was a lot opposition to the concept of integration by professionals and parents alike. Many meetings were held in order to try to sort out the disagreement. Parents argued that their children would not survive well in a regular environment.
We had a lot of negotiation with the provincial government all along the way. It was new to them and it was new to us so they were inventing as they went and so were we. It was an interesting process. Hiding the kids away didn’t seem the right thing to do.
Both sides were weighed very carefully and a compromise was reached. The Peace School of Hope building was in extreme need of maintenance and repair. There was room available at Montrose Junior High School. Montrose was split into two buildings across the street from each other. A wing of one of those buildings was designated as the segregated portion dedicated to the Peace School. The doors that separated the Peace School from the rest of the school were kept closed but not locked and an attempt was made to involve students from the Junior High to interact with the children at the Peace School. Some of the Montrose students worked with the disabled students and gained work experience credits. Some of the Peace School students would participate in the Junior High physical education classes.
There was a lot of apprehension from parents and teachers, so the situation was treated as an experiment in the beginning. Many of the anxieties were eventually done away with because it turned out that the students from Montrose and those from the Peace School found ways to get along well with each other.
In his role of Deputy Superintendent and the head of Special Programs, Gerry visited the students and teachers at the Peace School Wing and discovered a natural fit between the Peace School and Montrose.
The philosophy of integration continued to be discussed throughout the province and the board began to look for ways to integrate the disabled children in to regular classrooms. The Peace School was shut down. There was a lot of opposition to this move, some of it from teachers who objected to the plan because they did not welcome the addition to their already full workload, particularly if there were potential behaviour problems to be dealt with. Other teachers embraced the idea and aides were hired to assist the teachers in cases where behaviour was an issue. Special programs were implemented right up to the high school level. Working through the transition demanded compromise from all parties. Gerry’s recollection is that “all in all, the move toward full integration became quite successful.”
Integration was an issue that was on everybody’s minds in those days. Grande Prairie’s Crystal Park School became a location for integration of the more severely handicapped children into the regular school system. Crystal Park’s program included physical and occupational therapy and speech pathology. When that concept developed, the move to full integration was much closer to reality.
At the Composite High School, programs were experimental and it felt like “running upstream in the face of the opposition.” The opposition was not as strong as that encountered during the move from the Peace School to Montrose.
At the high school level, disabled children attended some segregated classes and integrated with the other classes to a certain extent. The program used a combination approach and success depended largely on the attitudes of the teachers who ran the programs. By this time, though, the concept of integration had been around for a time and most were more accepting of the idea. The board tried to ensure the availability of aides in classrooms where they would be needed.
The greatest challenge encountered was dealing with the initial move of the Peace School to integration in the public system. One of the highlights was at a school board meeting within about six months after the move of the Peace School to Montrose. Many positive feelings were expressed about the move being the “right direction” at that time.
Gerry is now Superintendent of Schools for the Peace Wapiti School Board.