Province will keep schools in Ottawa, Milton, Belleville and London open .
Education Minister Mitzie Hunter, shown earlier this year, says the decision to keep schools for deaf and blind children open was made after several months of consultation. By Rob FergusonQueen’s Park Bureau
Mon., Aug. 8, 2016
Ontario will keep open four schools for 160 children who are deaf, blind or have severe learning disabilities while it develops pilot projects to help kids with similar challenges in traditional schools.
The move follows protests by worried parents last winter and spring and an outcry from opposition parties at Queen’s Park after the government stopped admissions at the schools in Milton, London, Belleville and Ottawa for the fall.
Education Minister Mitzie Hunter said Monday the government’s goal is to better help children with special needs across the province closer to home.
But critics like David Lepofsky of the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act Alliance charged the latest step “falls miles short of what is needed by 334,000 students with special education needs.”
Hunter said the government spent months consulting with parents and experts on “how to best meet students’ needs so they can reach their full potential in school, and in life.”
“We need to ensure equity and better serve our students who are deaf, blind or have severe learning disabilities by providing them with robust services and effective programs in their home communities,” she added in a statement.
The government did not give a permanent commitment to keep the schools open, with a spokeswoman in Hunter’s office saying only that “there are no plans to close.”
Bob Ryan, a residential counsellor at the Trillium school in Milton, said the pilot projects sound like “smoke and mirrors.”
“The hometown schools have been saying for decades that ‘we can’t do this,’ ” added Ryan, president of an Ontario Public Service Employees Union local representing staff at Trillium.
“I don’t even see how they can get a pilot project off the ground by September.”
Children in the schools can be in Grade 7 or 8 but reading at a Grade 1 level, Ryan said, making remedial work a tall order in the regular school system.
Hunter’s office said three-year pilot projects will begin in public and Catholic school boards in Cambridge, London, Sudbury and Windsor, involving Trillium and the Amethyst and Sagonaska Demonstration Schools in London and Belleville, respectively.
Those boards were chosen because some they have experience in serving students with severe learning disabilities in reading, said Hunter spokeswoman Nicole McInerney.
The purpose is to build “capacity” in school boards, she added. “We anticipate that these three-year pilots will inform possible expansion of the programs further across the province.”
Parents were shocked when the government halted admissions to the schools for this fall, saying their children desperately need the individualized attention they during and after classes in the schools.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government’s climbdown on the special needs schools echoes backtracking on efforts to charge some seniors more for prescription drugs and a revamping of a controversial new autism policy.
She said it will be a challenge for the government to provide the “robust services” children enjoy in special needs schools in the regular school system.
“It’s certainly not happening now.”
Progressive Conservative Leader Patrick Brown applauded Hunter’s announcement but said he will take it with a “grain of salt.”
“We await further details and confirmation that these schools will remain open past the 2016-2017 school year,” he added in a statement.