Parents fight to save Arrowsmith program

  • November 28, 2008
{mosimage}TORONTO - A pioneering $1-million program which has helped students correct their learning disabilities could soon fall under the budget axe at the Toronto Catholic District School Board, some parents with children in the program fear.

Evette and Clint Harder say they fear that the board will drop the Arrowsmith program at seven Toronto Catholic schools. Their eight-year-old daughter, Paige, is one of about 65 students enrolled in the program.
The Toronto Catholic board is the only public school board in the world to offer the Arrowsmith program, a program that uses cognitive exercises to correct learning disabilities. It’s been offering it for the past 9 years. But that could soon change as the board reviews the program as it faces a deficit budget. For the past two years, the board has paid $348,000 in licensing fees to the original Arrowsmith School.

Barbara Arrowsmith Young, who also struggled with learning disabilities growing up, invented the program and has been running her own private schools since 1980. The program sees students spend half the day in the Arrowsmith program working on different cognitive exercises. For instance, Paige wears a blue patch over her left eye while she repeatedly traces patterns. Holy Spirit Catholic Elementary School teacher Margaret Quinn said the eye patch helps Paige concentrate and is designed to exercise the left side of her brain in order to develop her language skills. Students spend the rest of the day in their home classroom where they do regular school work. Most are in the program between three to four years before returning to the full-time academic program.

The Harders say they’ve tried other programs, but this is the one that seems to be working. In just two months, Paige no longer hates reading or says she’s “stupid,” Evette told The Register. Paige has also elevated her reading level and other academic skills.

"The Harders have rallied other parents who are planning to make a presentation on Dec. 10 before the board to try and salvage the program.

A leading brain expert has also been won over to their cause. Dr. Norman Doidge, author of the New York Times’ best-selling book The Brain That Changes Itself, made a special trip to present the benefits of the program at a Nov. 12 board meeting.

Doidge told The Catholic Register that to cut this program would be a “personal catastrophe” to the children because traditional methods don’t work for kids with multiple learning disabilities, he said.

“If they want to hurt their budget, they’ll cut this because basically, they can either keep these kids in (special education) classes for the rest of their school careers or invest in them for three or four years,” he said during a telephone interview from San Antonio, Texas.

Quinn, 55, has taught the program for seven years and said her students have scored high in provincial tests.

“It’s beyond the academics. It changes them as people,” she said.

According to St. Theresa Shrine School teacher Sheila Brown-Vitullo, during her 25 years as a  special education teacher, the results with Arrowsmith have been impressive. She noted some of her former students have a B+ high school average with little or no special education assistance.

These results echo the findings of a 2007 report on the program conducted for the board. It said the program has helped students improve in reading, math and logical reasoning. The report concluded that the program helped reduce the amount of resource support required after students left the program.

Parent Carlos Lameiro, who recently launched a web site called LD Families to keep parents updated about the program review, said he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to ensure that the program continues, including paying a user fee.

The Harders said they can’t afford to send Paige to a private Arrowsmith School. But even if they had to put a second mortgage on their house, Evette said spots at the Toronto Arrowsmith private school are full for next year.

“We don’t want a band-aid.”

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