The Ontario government says it will keep publicly funded schools for children with severe learning disabilities open this academic year and has no plans to close them, but parents still fear they will be shuttered over time to save money.
The province has conducted consultations with parents and staff about the effectiveness of three so-called demonstration schools for students with learning disabilities in Milton, Belleville and London. It also reviewed a school for the deaf in London and a francophone school in Ottawa for deaf children and those with learning disabilities.
The schools, established in the late 1970s and early 1980s and run by the Ministry of Education, allow the children to stay overnight during the week and provide supports that students with exceptional learning and developmental needs would not receive in regular schools. Students who go to demonstration schools generally return to the regular system within a few years.
The government put the admission process on hold in the spring during the consultations, reopening it in April.
A Ministry of Education release on Monday indicated that "over the coming year," the province will keep the schools open. Many parents were confused about whether the specialized schools would remain open beyond that. Later in the day, Education Minister Mitzie Hunter issued a statement saying the government will not close the schools and has "no plans to close them."
The government said it will also run pilot projects to give reading help to students in regular schools who have severe learning disabilities but no access to a specialized school.
Ruth Bourachot, who heads the parent council at Trillium Demonstration School in Milton, said she is concerned that the pilot projects in regular schools will eliminate the need for demonstration schools.
She argued that these provincial schools were set up because local school boards were unable to provide the necessary resources for children with severe learning disabilities. Her 12-year-old son attends Trillium, and Ms. Bourachot said she has seen tremendous progress in his reading.
"There is no way they can provide the intensity of that program in a regular school setting," Ms. Bourachot said. "I still think they're going to close the schools. This is just a short-term thing while they finalize their plans."
A spokeswoman for Ms. Hunter said the government is looking to provide more supports for students.
"There are no plans to close the schools," said Nicole McInerney. Wendy Haggitt, whose daughter attended Amethyst Demonstration School in London, said the pilot programs will help more children with learning disabilities. She believes, however, that the government plans to close demonstration schools. This will mean students with severe learning disabilities will not receive the help they need, she said.
"I'm optimistic that their new project plan is going to help a large group of children. But I'm very skeptical that it's going to help children with severe [learning disabilities]," Ms. Haggitt said.