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  • Andrea Gordon

Future of unique inclusive kindergarten in doubt

Program at Bloorview school that brings together kids with and without disabilities considered a model, but days may be numbered.

Most kids know it as “freeze tag.” But to the 14 students in Paul Alcamo’s kindergarten class, the chasing game is “freeze tag hand-up shout-out.”

That’s a version the kids designed themselves to make sure everyone can play — including friends who use wheelchairs. Instead of touching someone to “freeze” them, those children can shout out a name. Non-verbal players can raise a hand and point.

“They actually invented a new game, recognizing the different abilities of all our children,” says Paul Alcamo, teacher at the unique kindergarten, which brings together kids with disabilities and without, and is on the site of Holland-Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto.

When the children explained, “I was bursting with pride,” says Alcamo, who has taught the class since its 1997 launch and encourages the youngsters to collaborate and think creatively to make sure everyone is included.

But now the future of the program — described by participants and parents as a small but powerful model of inclusion — is uncertain.

The reason: declining enrolment of able-bodied students. For 20 years, they have come through the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, the lab school at the University of Toronto, and paid tuition to attend. But none have signed up for September.

The board of the Bloorview School Authority has given notice it will not operate as an integrated class and all spaces will go to other children who need intensive support.

That decision has galvanized former students along with current and past parents who plan to appear at a board meeting Tuesday, armed with hundreds of signatures and testimonials, to argue against the move.

They want the decision reversed and a chance to attract families to keep the program going next year. They also want to collaborate with the board on a longer-term plan to access alternative funding and bring it into the community.

“This is the dream, this is what so many families like mine who have kids with a disability want,” says Beth Dangerfield, a special education teacher whose 6-year-old daughter Abby is in the class where she receives therapy and uses an assistive device to communicate.

Dangerfield says Abby’s able-bodied peers play an integral part in her education, self-confidence and how she sees herself and her circle.

But one long-time advocate for inclusion in the public system says the days are long past when “special” programs should exist. Instead, they should be the norm for all school-age children.

“This could be done in every school and would have a positive impact on all students and teachers,” says Reva Schafer of the Toronto Family Network.

Dangerfield and other parents complain the decision to end the Bloorview integrated kindergarten was made despite their plans to hold an open house and campaign to attract new kids for September, at a cost of $7,500 a year.

And they question why the program hasn’t been marketed and expanded at a time when research has shown the benefits of inclusion for all students, and school boards who say they embrace the principles need examples of successful models to learn from.

“We need to keep this program,” says Dangerfield. “We need to study this program and we need to expand it to every school.”

But without the necessary enrolment, the Bloorview School Authority made “the very difficult decision” to change it next fall, says board chair Dr. Julia Alleyne. She did not rule out the possibility of resuming the integrated class in the future.

The Bloorview school, which has more than 200 students at all levels this year, gets education ministry funding for hospital patients or referrals. Any efforts to access funding for able-bodied students would be up to the Jackman Institute, she said.

Jackman principal Richard Messina calls the program “the jewel in the crown” of integrated programs.

“It has always been our hope that the ministry or TDSB would see it as successful demonstration worth following and funding in an alternative way where teachers, psychologists, (occupational and physical) therapists could visit and learn from what’s going on,” he says.

“It’s the most explicit, overt, tangible demonstration of what the job of a teacher is, which is to identify ways we can create an environment both physical and philosophical where every child can be a full contributor.”

Both partners cite the introduction of full-day kindergarten in Ontario as one factor that caused enrolment to dwindle from about a dozen able-bodied kids to six by 2014, and four last fall, who are in their second year of the two-year program.

Many who have spent time in the classroom, from parents to researchers to teachers seconded from the Toronto District School Board for several years to co-teach with Alcamo, say if the change proceeds it will be a huge loss.

“What’s lost is what should be — this should be everywhere,” says Robin Green, whose 5-year-old twins Isabella and Sydney are in their second year.

Fabiana Bacchini agrees and says it’s important for her son Gabriel, 4, who has cerebral palsy, to be surrounded by friends who adapt their activities without a fuss to include him.

“Sometimes people can’t go as fast as me, so they just have to shout or raise their hand,” says Masaru Fernandes, 5, recounting a recent game of freeze tag during an after-school playdate with his classmates.

The “reciprocal benefits” for all kids in the class is key, says Coralee McLaren, a nursing professor at Ryerson University, who spent 10 weeks there in 2010 on a research project on movement. Her study found the children benefitted academically and physically from being together.

“The research needs to continue to move this agenda forward,” says McLaren. She later sent her own daughter, now 8, and says it transformed the way she sees the world and her consciousness of accessibility and the needs of everyone around her.

The program is one of only a handful in the country, says Alcamo, who has taught about 270 children since it was launched. Delegations come through regularly from as far away as Japan. So do Master’s students from OISE/U of T.

Alcamo, who won a Premier’s teaching award for excellence in 2011, is accustomed to his students coming up with solutions like their adapted freeze tag. It’s evidence that when kids learn and play together in a environment where everyone’s needs are equal, they become people who know how to advocate, think of others’ needs, problem-solve and make sure no one is left out, he says.

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