Sagonaska Demonstration School has had a major impact on the life of Josh Lehman.
On Wednesday, his father Mike was just one of several school supporters who were holding another rally aimed at continuing to gain public support while putting pressure on the Minister of Education, Liz Sandals.
Lehman said his son is currently in Grade 7 at Sagonaska.
Josh has been a student at Sagonaska since September. The school caters to students with learning disabilities and is located in Belleville at the same site as Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf.
“This is a very important school,” said Lehman. “This school teaches kids the way they need to be taught.”
“He’s been taught how to read. He’s gone from about a Grade 2 reading level to a Grade 5 reading level. His self confidence has been boosted immensely. His use of tech is helping with his learning. He’s been taught to own his learning disability and advocate for himself.
“The changes that we’ve seen in my son over the past few months have been extraordinary.”
Staff, families and other supporters have been lobbying for the school since the Ministry of Education announced earlier this year that Sagonaska was one of three English-language demonstration schools under consultation by the provincial government as part of an efficiency initiative. It was announced in February enrolment for the upcoming school year would be halted. That decision was reversed and opened again in April.
Lehman said he feels “truly disgusted” when he thinks about the uncertainty the schools are facing. He said the school teaches the Empower Program designed specifically for students with learning disabilities.
“They teach it a way that no other school can teach it or will teach it. It’s an intensive course here,” he said.
He doubts – if these schools close – school boards will be able to effectively integrate learning disabled students into their boards.
“All I can say is ‘Minister, beware. You’ve just been served with a human rights case’,” he said. “There are 16 cases rolled into one that the minister was given at the end of May. We are not going to stop this fight.”
Tiffany Carter has also witnessed the impact these schools have on students. She’s been working at Sagonaska for 14 years.
“We get kids from the regular schools and the teachers have tried to help them so much and they have exhausted all the resources that are available at the home school and they come here,” she said. “They are sometimes at a Kindergarten or Grade 1 level.”
Carter said she knows one student who just started at the school in September and already reached a Grade 7 reading level by February.
“It’s just amazing what they can do in a matter of months and it’s really sad that they’re considering closing it.”
Carter referenced another student who read at a Grade 2 level when she was first enrolled at Sagonaska. Since her time there, she’s gone on to university and attained two degrees.
“It’s just so sad, to think of all these kids that won’t have that opportunity.”
Carter has participated in all previous rallies including one at Queen’s Park in April.
“When a kid is 14 or 15-years-old and they’ve just been pushed through the system, it’s really sad to see. They come here and then all of a sudden they’re with kids the same as them, kids that have had the same struggles. They tend to be the ones that are bullied and not on sports teams. They come here and all of a sudden they’re on sports teams and it just boosts their confidence so much. They learn how to read and they learn all the new technology.”
President of OPSEU Local 456, Daryl O’Grady, said rallies were also taking place at schools in London and Milton and Ottawa.
“There is no commitment whatsoever from the Ontario government to any future plans with respect to these schools,” he said.
O’Grady said news of funding cuts at school boards’ (Halton, Upper Canada) special education programs show the government is saying one thing, and doing the opposite.
“In one breath we have the government saying more kids need to be serviced, they can be serviced in the boards. And yet we’re hearing of the boards making cuts, cuts that directly affect funding.”
“This school is successful. Minister Sandals has said all along that this school cannot be replicated,” he said. “How can you turn around and shut down the school? This is strictly about money.”
He said the supporters will continue their fight.
“This is about money and it shouldn’t be when it comes to kids with special needs.”
“This school has done amazing things. Why would you turn around and shut down schools like this to save money and have kids that are the most vulnerable without the opportunity to have the needs that they deserve?”
O’Grady said consultations took place in April and results of those were expected to be released to stakeholders and the public at the end of May.
“We have yet to hear from that. We have no idea what these consultations revealed.”
“After today we’ll continue to probably have more rallies. It’s difficult in the summer time, that’s why we’re trying to get the attention, right now, of the government. I have meetings next week in Toronto where we’ll further discuss this. But we need to keep showing, the public needs to be aware, that these are things you have to fight for,” he said. “If the government’s not prepared to listen to the workers or the families or the parents, then we’re asking other people to get involved.”