Any move to close demonstration schools 'short-sighted'

The Ontario government is refusing to rule out closing as many as five provincial schools for students who are deaf or have severe learning disabilities.

Liberals won't rule out closing schools for disabled and deaf

Robarts School for the Deaf in London, Ont. (Ontario Ministry of Education)

Any move to close Ontario's demonstration schools would be "short-sighted" according to a pediatrician who works with children with learning disabilities. 

The Ontario government is refusing to rule out closing as many as five provincial schools for students who are deaf or have severe learning disabilities.

During question period last week, education minister Liz Sandals refused to promise to keep the schools open when asked directly three times.

These are demonstration schools that host students who are having difficulty learning to read. They come from all over the province, including the GTA.

The ministry has stopped new applications to attend demonstration schools in Milton, London and Belleville, as well as the Robarts School for the Deaf in London.

There's a possibility that as many as five of Ontario's "demonstration" schools for students with special needs may be closed. Here, we speak about it with developmental pediatrician Dr. Peggy Kirkpatrick, who works at one of those schools. 7:05

Dr. Peggy Kirkpatrick is a developmental pediatrician at the Isand Clinic in Toronto. She works with children who attend the Sagonaska school in Belleville.

She appeared on CBC Radio's Metro Morning today and said parents are "devastated" at the prospect of seeing the schools close. 

She said the schools have helped countless students who were struggling to learn in regular classrooms.

"When I ask them when they're finished 'What was the best thing about going to Sagonaska?' And they'll say 'I learned to read.' And that will change their lives."

Demonstration schools are places to test learning strategies. Those strategies are a product of research, some of it completed at The Hospital for Sick Children, in teaching children with developmental disabilities. They are not necessarily strategies present in other school boards — a reason to keep them, Kirkpatrick argued.

"If you had a kid who was having trouble playing hockey, you wouldn't put them in more games. You'd send them to skills camp," she said. "We have to take the same approach with these schools."

In 2012, the Drummond report on reforming Ontario's public services and cutting costs recommended closing the demonstration schools, and using the savings to fund programs for learning-disabled kids within the main school system. It also recommended consolidating the province's three schools for the deaf on one site.

The government is asking for input on the schools until April 8. (The Drury and Whitney schools for the deaf in Milton and Belleville, and the W. Ross Macdonald school for the blind and deafblind in Brantford are not under review.)

Kirkpatrick said the demonstration schools are sometimes the first time a school environment has really worked for some students.

She says parents are "devastated" at hearing that the schools could close.

"They've had a wonderful experience doing [learning to read] and they are flabbergasted that this would even be considered."