School hasn’t always been easy for Matthew Berka.
He went to three different elementary schools, including one where his only friend was his cousin. He doesn’t transition well — each new school brings anxiety, and the possibility of fleeing and hiding when things get tough.
All of that improved in September, when the 14-year-old ninth grader arrived at Parkview Secondary.
“There are a lot of people that have a hard time reading and writing,” said Matthew, who has a learning disability. “I personally like it because it’s nice to know I’m not alone and I’m not always different.”
This disparity is front of mind for many parents with kids at Parkview and Mountain, the city’s two high schools for students with special needs. Both schools will close by 2016 after a sprawling city-wide review that saw Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board trustees vote last May to close eight high schools.
Matthew will go from a school of 233 to a new north school of 1,250, comprised of students from Sir John A. Macdonald, Delta and Parkview. Trustees will vote Oct. 21 on where to put the new high school, and whether that will involve Parkview students such as Matthew transferring twice in as many years.
Matthew’s mom, Tracy, worries he’ll be bullied. She worries about whether he’ll have the same support, and how he’ll deal with one — possibly two — transitions.
“Matthew’s transition here was probably the best transition he’s had in his school life,” she said. “If there’s not a place where he can get a quiet space, he’s been known to leave the class. He’s been known to hide in the bathroom. In a school like Delta, where are they going to find him?”
Right now, Parkview students face two possible futures. One is that the school will close in 2016 and they'll move to a new school at Scott Park. That would require the board expropriating a small parcel of land that holds a former high school, and building a school that's five stories tall. An expropriation hearing was held over Scott Park earlier this month. If the board builds there, it will use the Parkview and King George land for parking and green space.
The other option is to locate the new school on the Parkview and King George land. If that happens, Parkview students will spend the next school year at Delta, then move on to the new high school the following year. This is the least desirable option for Berka and her fellow Parkview parents.
Students feel equal at Mountain and Parkview
“We knew it was possible that (Parkview) would close at the end of Grade 10,” said Berka, whose son takes a bus from Stoney Creek every day. “We thought two years in this environment would do him some good.”
But with the latter option, “that’s a lot of transition for children who don’t transition well.”
Christine Bingham, whose son goes to Parkview, shares those concerns. She’s trying to rally Parkview parents against the two-transition option.
If she had her choice, she said, the school wouldn’t be closing at all. Delta and Sir John A. are “rough schools,” she said. Putting all three populations together will be “a total and complete disaster."
“The more I get to talk to parents and students, the more my heart just breaks for them,” she said. “The students themselves just keep saying to their mothers and their fathers that they want to stay here. They feel equal.”
Decisions driven by 'the almighty dollar'
Several Mountain parents feel the same way, said Stephen Dungavel, a member of the parent council. Mountain has 152 students this year. In September 2016, its students will attend a new 1,000-student school southeast of the Lincoln Alexander Parkway that incorporates students from Barton and Hill Park. The board is still negotiating for land.
Dungavel said since his son entered Mountain in Grade 9, he’s become more mature and confident under the watchful eye of the school's dedicated staff. Now he hopes to go to Mohawk College to become a diesel mechanic.
Dungavel attended the board’s public meetings about the future of Mountain. He voiced his concerns. But “the almighty dollar seems to mean more than anything else,” he said.
Students with special needs will have as much support in their new schools as they do now, said Peter Joshua, a HWDSB superintendent.
“There’s absolutely an assurance that we will preserve those programs and supports,” Joshua said. “As the students transition, we need to honour what is working very well for them.”
More course options at larger schools
Students who need small classes will still have them, he said. And those who need individual help will still get it.
By attending a larger school, students will have access to even more course options and programs, Joshua said. In the end, it will be better for the student.
“I really believe that,” he said.
The board is assembling advisory committees with students, parents and other voices, he said. The transition plan will include a peer-to-peer program called Best Buddies, where older students are matched with newer ones.
“That will certainly help us address in a positive way the issue of anti-bullying,” he said.
Diverse schools 'reflect the real world'
There is a trend away from schools for students with special needs, said Sheila Bennett, an expert in special education policy at Brock University.
When students with special needs graduate, she said, they go into a diverse world. With the larger schools, the environment “will reflect the real world better."
For example, some students with special needs may have trouble navigating hallways, she said.
“But if we can’t help them learn how to do that with supports and strategies, with a trained professional in a controlled environment when they’re 16, how will they ever go to a movie when they’re 35?”
Special needs are so varied, Bennett said, that students in classes devoted to those with special needs could have as little in common with their peers as they would in a mainstream classroom.
'Everybody has a broken heart'
Research also shows that children who are segregated are bullied more, Bennett said.
Transitions are difficult for anyone, but “that doesn’t require us not to transition them,” she said. “What it requires is for us to take extra care and provide more support when we transition them.”
Bingham plans to keep fighting the plan that would see Parkview students moved twice. She’s still upset that the school is closing at all.
“I’m furious at a lot of things,” she said. “Everybody has a broken heart but no one does anything about it.”
“We’re still sending letters. I don’t give up easy. I don’t open the can of worms, but I will kick it over and make sure the issues are dealt with.”