Parents fear schools for blind, deaf and special needs kids will close
Education Minister Liz Sandals urged to keep demonstration schools open beyond next school year
Premier Kathleen Wynne refused Thursday to guarantee that residential schools for special needs students will stay open beyond next year, as hundreds of parents rallied outside the Ontario legislature to keep the institutions from closing.
- Ontario parent calls potential closure of special needs schools 'very difficult'
- Liz Sandals won't rule out closing provincial schools for disabled and deaf
Wynne said one French-language and three English Demonstration schools do great work, but they can't possibly serve the thousands of students with special needs, so the government is looking for new ways to broaden the services they provide.
"I understand how important these programs are to the children and the families who are here today," Wynne told the legislature.
"But it is our responsibility to make sure that we don't stand in the way of a change that could actually provide more service and more programming to children."
Parents were "shocked" and families were thrown into chaos when the Liberals halted admissions for this fall while it consulted on the future of the schools in Belleville, Milton, Ottawa and London, said Lesley Leahman, chair of the parent council at the Sagonaska Demonstration School in Belleville.
"There is no equity if these children are not taught how to read," said Leaham, the mother of a Grade 7 student with severe learning disabilities.
"All of our children are very bright and gifted, and they simply need an individualized program to ensure they succeed," she said. "Students soar at these schools."
The parents don't believe Education Minister Liz Sandals when she says no final decisions have been made about the schools beyond 2016-17, added Leahman, who broke down in tears as she urged Sandals to keep them open.
"She's being dishonest about so many issues on so many different levels," said Leahman. "Why did she halt the application process if no decisions had been made?"
Sandals said formal consultations on the four schools are done, but she's still talking with various parties about the future of the demonstration schools.
"I can't report what will happen beyond this school year because I literally have not made any decisions," she said.
There are only 160 students total in the demonstration schools, which offer individualized programs tailored to each student, but the government caps enrolment at 40 per school.
Sara Pike of Toronto attended two demonstration schools because of a severe learning disability, and said they gave her "a second chance at life," helping her jump from a Grade 3 reading level to Grade 9 in under six months and greatly boosting her math skills.
"I am so blessed that I found a place I actually belonged for once in my life," she said.
"After two years, I went back to my home (school) board with more confidence and hope for my future because this time I had the skills to guide me and a family outside my own who were and are there for me."
Ten-year-old Lexi Lemoire-Drouillard, of Trenton, Ont., has dyslexia and couldn't read until a Grade 3 teacher spent a lot of extra time with her, but said she's fallen behind because she did so well on oral exams that she can't get into a demonstration school.
"I aced it. I answered college and university level stuff," she said. "I'm smart."
Lexi wants to go to Sagonaska, which helped her brother jump nine years in reading levels in just two years, but worries it won't be kept open.
"I have the right to learn," she said. "I want to go to university and I want to have a job."
Lexi could be the next premier of Ontario or prime minister of Canada if she gets into Sagonaska, said Progressive Conservative MPP Todd Smith.
The "one-year band aid the government is promising" for the demonstration schools just isn't good enough, he added.
"We need to remove the (enrolment) caps at our demonstration schools," said Smith. "We should not be even thinking about closing them."
The Robarts School for the Deaf in London, Ont., is also part of the government's review of the future of the demonstration schools.
But the Ernest C. Drury School for the Deaf in Milton, Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf in Belleville, and W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford are not included in the government's review process.