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Groundbreaking FASD classrooms to open in area

By Lindsay Briscoe

Between calls from the Globe and Mail and university research departments from Toronto to Vancouver, Sean Monteith, superintendent of education at the Keewatin-Patricia District School Board (KPDSB), managed to pencil in the Red Lake district newspaper for an interview recently.

“I completely underestimated the media attention and interest from people across the country,” he said in a phone interview. “There are just a lot of people interested in what we’re doing.”

In September 2013, the KPDSB will be the first school board in the country to open doors to classes specifically designed to meet the needs of students with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD). Clinically, they’re referred to as Cognitive Controlled Therapy classrooms.

“We don’t have hard and fast statistics to back this up but we do know the data that we do have suggests the prevalence of FASD is quite significantly higher in the northwest region than it is in other parts of the province or in the country.”

The project has been in the planning stages for about three years but there have been several delays in moving forward.

“I’ve been a bit…there’s been trepidation on my part with how to move forward in a way that is sensitive, is dignified, but is focused on helping our kids – and they are our kids,” he says.

It all clicked when Monteith was introduced, through a mental health coach already working with the KPDSB, to Dr. Gideon Koren who is the “architect” of the SickKids Motherisk programs, based in Toronto, which specialize in perinatal toxicology including FASD. Together they’ve been working on designing an intensive training program for teachers that will focus on both instructional strategies and behaviour strategies.

“One of the things we know about kids with FASD is that their ability to comprehend and articulate one day could be absent the next day. There are gaps there,” says Monteith. “So how do you, in the long term, make sure the gaps are minimized so the kids are able to retain what they’re learning?”

Monteith says teachers with a background in special education will be hired for the positions and trained and supported by experts at SickKids. The first two classrooms will open at Dryden’s Open Roads Public School and Sioux Mountain Public School in Sioux Lookout with the intention of opening two more classrooms at Evergreen Public School in Kenora and Red Lake Madsen Public School for the 2014-2015 school year.

“We’re not looking to cure FASD. This is a societal issue,” says Monteith. “But if you believe that every child should have an opportunity to feel good about themselves, see value in themselves and leave our system with a diploma or with an opportunity to be an independent in the world, then we have a moral responsibility to level the field for everybody.”

FASD primarily causes:

– facial abnormalities and physical health problems
– learning disabilities
– memory loss
– a short attention span
– inappropriate communication of feelings
– difficulty understanding consequences of actions

FASD can result in:

– disrupted school experiences
– drug and alcohol abuse
– difficulty holding a job and interacting socially
– inappropriate sexual behaviour
– inability to control behaviour and communicate thoughts

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