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Parents upset one-of-a-kind integrated program for kids with disabilities suspended

School's board says no able-bodied children enrolled in integrated program.

The parents of four-year-old Gabriel Nikolakakis said their son's peers at Bloorview School Authority learn compassion and empathy in a class alongside students with disabilities. (CBC News)

The board of a Toronto private school with a one-of-a-kind kindergarten class that integrates students with disabilities and able-bodied children is making the difficult decision to suspend the program, despite an outcry from parents.

Parents of kindergartners, as well as representatives of the Bloorview school, attended a meeting Tuesday evening in Leaside to discuss the future of the program.

Many families say the class greatly benefited their children, whether they have disablilities or they are able-bodied kids, who are often referred to as "typically developing children."

The meeting took place at the Holland-Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital at Eglinton Avenue East and Bayview Avenue, which is also the site of the school.

"The typically-developing kids see the world through a different lens at such an early age. They learn compassion, empathy and how not to judge people with disabilities," said Fabiana Bacchini, whose four-year-old son Gabriel has cerebral palsy.

'A lot of kids' needs are not being met': Lots of labels, lack of resources for students with special needs

"And for my child interacting with typically developing kids, he's seeing more potential ... he wants to model those kids. So I think everybody gains."

The decision to suspend the Integrated Education and Therapy program, which has been running for around 20 years, comes after years of declining enrolment of children without disabilities, which in the past two years was at zero.

Gabriel Nikolakakis, who has cerebral palsy, attends the Integrated Education and Therapy program at Bloorview School Authority, which may soon be suspended. (CBC News)

"Rather than close the program, we have suspended the program since we have no new enrolment at all," said Dr. Julia Alleyne, chair of the school's board. "The board decided to ... set up a committee for this program to try to see if it can be saved."

The Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study has been in charge of recruiting able-bodied and fee-paying students for the school.

In 2008-09, there were 12 typically-developing students enrolled in the integrated program. This year, despite efforts to raise awareness of the program through their website, letters to parents and advertisements in local newsletters, there were none.

Richard Messina, principal at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study at the University of Toronto, says the institute does not have a budget for advertising but is hoping the committee can look at ways to effectively share the benefits of the programs with parents of children without disabilities.

Parents of six-year-old Abby Dangerfield said the program has helped her come out of her shell. (CBC News)

"We have to now explore alternative ways to get the message out," he said. "I just don't think we've done a good enough job sharing that information."

Chris Dangerfield, whose six-year-old daughter Abby attends the integrated program with Gabriel, says the program has helped his typically-developing child come out of her shell.

"I can't think of any better experience for her than this classroom," he said. "In terms of what it will be like when she integrates into a regular classroom she might be the only kid with a speech delay or anything else. She's going to have learned skills to help her communicate with other children."

Both Messina and Alleyne say the school noticed the decline in enrolment since the province rolled out full-day kindergarten.

"I am delighted that there is full-day kindergarten but that has proven to be a bit of competition for parents," said Messina.

Alleyne says that while she understands the frustration of parents who don't want to see the program go away, the board is able to better use the resources to accommodate students with disabilities that are on wait-lists to get into Bloorview School Authority, who could greatly benefit from the school and its resources.

"We currently have nine children on our waiting lists ... We'd like to use the capacity of the classroom and the teacher to allow some of our waiting list of children with disabilities into the school," she said.

Future of program uncertain.

The mandate of the primary school, which enrols 205 students in total from Junior Kindergarten through to Grade 1, is to prepare children with disabilities for integration into local community schools, which Alleyne says the school will continue to do effectively despite the suspension of the program.

However, Messina said, should interest and enrolment in the program from parents of typically-developing children see a spike in the future, the program could very well return.

"We're hoping tonight will buy us some time to rethink how to promote the program and how to fund the program," said Messina.

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