Save Arrowsmith

By 
  • September 4, 2009
{mosimage}The new supervisor of the dysfunctional Toronto Catholic District School Board will be among the busiest administrators in the province this fall, but we hope Richard Alway finds time to consider the displaced students of the mothballed Arrowsmith program.

Alway was appointed by the Ontario government last month to succeed Norbert Hartmann, who had been appointed a year earlier with a mandate to balance the books of the disgraced TCDSB. Hartmann delivered a balanced budget and then resigned. He leaves behind a board that is in better fiscal health but otherwise remains sickly.

Normally, elected trustees oversee budget management. But Toronto’s Catholic trustees were stripped of their duties by the province after repeated failures and indiscretions. In classroom parlance, they were sent to detention where they deserve to stay until their terms expire in 2010.

In the short term that means the fate of several dozen of Toronto’s most vulnerable special-needs students — those from the Arrowsmith program — will be in the hands of Alway.

Arrowsmith,  a victim of Hartmann’s cost cutting, is an innovative educational approach for children with multiple learning disabilities. It was adopted nine years ago by the TCDSB and last year enrolled about 60 students at a cost of $176,000 for licensing fees plus teaching and administrative expenses. It represents a miniscule fraction of the board’s total enrolment and overall budget of $900 million. Arrowsmith is not the reason the board couldn’t balance its books. But the program was left defenceless after trustees sank into scandal, relinquished authority and became ineffectual observers to Hartmann’s budget cuts.

Unlike other special-needs programs, Arrowsmith is unique because it purports to treat an underdeveloped brain so that students with certain types of serious learning disabilities can improve their cognitive abilities and return to mainstream education. Its objective is to remove children from special-needs programs and, therefore, has the potential to provide obvious long-term economic and societal benefits. It is not for all special-needs children but is tailored explicitly for those with potential to achieve normal learning function.

In cancelling the program, Hartmann said there was no hard comparative data to prove its effectiveness compared to mainstream programs. But if that is the case, then the response should be to commission a study to provide the data.

Meantime, there is substantial anecdotal evidence that suggests Arrowsmith can be effective. Parents and educators cite numerous cases of children who have completed the program and then graduated from high school and university. Absent contrary scientific data, these success stories suggest the compassionate course is to err on the side of the Arrowsmith children.

As it stands, the program has become collateral damage in the sniping between the scandalized trustees and the ministry of education. That is wrong. But Alway can make it right.

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