The Ontario government is reviewing the future of publicly funded schools for children with severe learning disabilities as the application process for new students has been put on hold and parents fear the government intends to shutter the schools to save money.
Three so-called demonstration schools for students with learning disabilities in Milton, Belleville and London are under the government's microscope. The province is also conducting consultations on 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 80s and run by the Ministry of Education, allow the children to stay overnight during the week and provide supports for students with exceptional learning and developmental needs that they would not otherwise receive in the regular school environment. Students attending demonstration schools generally return to the regular school system over time.
Education Minister Liz Sandals said during Question Period this week that enrolment has declined in these schools.
Ms. Sandals said in an e-mail statement to The Globe and Mail that the government is meeting with families to "explore ways to provide effective programs and services that will best support achievement and well-being." The consultation will end this spring, she said.
But Ruth Bourachot, who heads the parents council at Trillium Demonstration School in Milton, described the consultations as "lip-service meetings." Parents at the Trillium school met with Ms. Sandals on Wednesday evening.
Ms. Bourachot is concerned that the government has already decided to close the schools, based on the fact that the admission process for the fall has been put on hold. "They're bullying and picking on the weakest who can't fend for themselves the same way as others, and that's horrific," she said.
Her son is 12 and started attending Trillium this academic year. He spends his week at the school and returns home to Collingwood for the weekend.
Ms. Bourachot said her son did not thrive in the regular school system. He was receiving special supports, but could not read.
She heard about the demonstration school and immediately applied through her school board. The process took about a year. Six months into the school year, his reading abilities have already improved, she said.
If he returns to the regular school system now, "he'll be lost," Ms. Bourachot said.
"I'm feeling angry because kids with severe learning disabilities are lost in the system. The regular school system is not set up to support these kids in any way, shape or form," she said. "These schools are equipped. They have specialized programs. It's an intense learning environment and these kids are held to task."
Annie Kidder, executive director for advocacy group People for Education, said inclusion of all students in the public school system is important, but she questions the motivation behind shutting down programs that help vulnerable students.
"Sometimes it can be couched as this is about inclusion, but sometimes it's really about money," Ms. Kidder said.
Public schools are not necessarily equipped to support students with high learning needs. Ms. Kidder said there are not enough school staff, and there have been times when principals ask parents to keep children home because there are no supports available.
"You can't just close down one whole system without ensuring there are all the supports needed and in place in the other system," she said. "It's still important that we recognize that sometimes different programs work for different purposes."