Families fight to save Storefront School

A unique, 30-year-old program that helps students with intellectual disabilities prepare for the world of work is at risk of shutting down because the school board is no longer getting rent-free space in the office building that hosts it.

Unique co-op program for students with disabilities in peril after landlord began charging board rent

Eliza Ali is lobbying the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board to save a program that helps students with developmental disabilities prepare for the workforce. Her 19-year-old brother, Shohan Ali, started the two-year program last September. (Susan Burgess)

A program that helps young adults with intellectual disabilities prepare for the world of work is at risk of shutting down after the landlord of the office building that houses it began charging rent.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School board has run Storefront School since 1987. The two-year program typically accepts just 12 students at a time, who spend their mornings at work placements and their afternoons in class learning life skills. 

Storefront's current home is a basement space in an office building next to St. Laurent Shopping Centre. The landlord, Morguard, had been providing the space rent-free, but began charging the school board $3,000 a month in September 2016.

That decision triggered a review of the program by the board. It now plans to move Storefront's existing students to Ottawa Technical Secondary School. After that, Storefront would be absorbed into the board's general learning program for students with intellectual disabilities.

Setting crucial to success, families say

News of the changes has upset the families of both current and former students, who describe the program as life-changing for those it serves.

Cindy Harrison, whose son Grayson Whitney finished the program last spring, said moving it to a high school would make it less effective for many students with disabilities.

"One of the things [Grayson] really struggled with was learning how to approach an employer, that it's OK to say, "Yo, dude!" when you're walking down a hall in a high school setting, but it's not OK to say that to an employer," Harrison said.

"From the moment those young people walked into that office building, they needed to behave a certain way. They needed to greet people from other officers in a certain way, they needed to watch that their language was appropriate," she said. "It allowed them the support they needed to develop those very important skills."

Chris Ellis, a trustee on the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, says families of Storefront School graduates have been lobbying him to keep the program running. (Susan Burgess)

Because of the program's small size, changes to it do not require a vote by trustees, but concerned families have arranged to address them at a meeting Tuesday night in an effort to save the program.

Some, including Louise Cave, have submitted comments in writing. Cave said her son experienced bullying in high school but is now flourishing at Storefront. 

"Since attending Storefront his self-confidence and self-worth and independence have taken off like wildfire," she wrote. "[My son] has made it clear that he doesn't want to go back to high school and that Storefront is by far his preferred education choice."

 Eliza Ali, whose 19-year-old brother Shohan Ali has attended since September, said the board is seeking to save money at the expense of students.

"In the end you're actually harming the future of these students who are on the border of being truly independent, and being a burden to their families," Ali said.

Not about money, board says

Mary Jane Farrish, a superintendent with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, said the rent charges were simply a catalyst for a program review that should have happened anyway. 

Farrish said the board already provides co-op work placement opportunities for students with special needs outside the Storefront program, and those will continue to be available.

However trustee Chris Ellis, whose zone includes Storefront School, said he's hoping trustees can find the money to keep running the program as-is for another year, buying the board time to find a more affordable site that's not in a high school.