Parents threaten lawsuit after Toronto special ed program axed

  • July 13, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - Saving the Arrowsmith program at the Toronto Catholic District School Board is an issue of equal rights for students with multiple learning disabilities, says a Toronto-based parent group.

“We are trying to level the playing field. We are trying to make sure that our children can have equitable access to teaching and what they need to move through the (education) system,” Clint Harder, a spokesperson for LD, told The Catholic Register.

When the board released its budget on June 24, Arrowsmith, a specialized learning disabilities program for about 64 students, was chopped as part of the board’s cost-saving measures to balance its budget.

Harder said parents are considering their options about what to do next, which could include legal action to have the program reinstated. Harder’s nine-year-old daughter, Paige, has been in the program since September and he said it has improved her reading abilities.

Annual licensing fees for Arrowsmith cost about $176,000. It was introduced in some Toronto Catholic schools in the late 1990s and is a cognitive-based program where students spend half of the school day working on cognitive exercises and the other half in regular classes.

In its budget report, provincially appointed supervisor Norbert Hartmann said the program was cut because it lacked “comparative evidence for enhanced impact on results for which school boards are accountable.”

Hartmann was unavailable for comment before The Register’s press time.

There is support for this. Learning disabilities expert Linda Siegel said the Arrowsmith program is flawed. Siegel, a professor at the University of British Columbia, said there hasn’t been sufficient research and evidence which measures the program’s effectiveness and compares it with other learning disabilities programs.

This September, the board said the 64 Arrowsmith students can join the 5,000 students who participate in the board’s existing learning disabilities programs. But Harder says these programs won’t work for his daughter who has multiple learning disabilities.

“Mr. Hartmann has turned his back on the most vulnerable children,” he said.

The board has been under pressure from the Ontario government to balance its budget. It came under provincial supervision in June 2008 amid a trustee spending scandal. In 2008-2009, the board had an accumulated budget deficit of $17 million.

Former board chair Catherine LeBlanc-Miller said cancelling the program two days before the end of school is “tragic” and “grossly insensitive” and leaves families scrambling to consider options for September.

Although there haven’t been many studies on the program, she said the board has “plenty of anecdotal evidence.” One is 19-year-old Branden Nunno. Nunno said the program helped boost his marks from Ds to Bs by the time he was in Grade 7.

Meanwhile, education law expert Justice Marvin Zuker said Arrowsmith parents could have legal grounds to challenge the board’s decision. Based upon Ontario’s education laws, which specify that the education minister should provide special education programs for children identified as “exceptional” students, Zuker said this program shouldn’t be cancelled if it can’t be found anywhere else.

The Toronto Catholic board is the only public system offering Arrowsmith in North America.

“If (these parents) determine or can determine that there are no other boards readily available or close by to provide the benefits for their children, then I think the government should not cancel this program for special needs children,” Zuker said.

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