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Our family advocating for inclusion

Bloorview's kindergarten class for kids with and without disabilities needs more students

"This is not an environment that is imbalanced or patronizing; this is just human beings understanding and supporting other human beings," says Robin Green, whose twin girls, Sydney and Isabella, attend the IKP class and don’t have disabilities.

A group of parents is determined to save an innovative kindergarten program that includes children with disabilities and their non-disabled peers.

At Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hopsital, the Integrated Kindergarten Program (IKP) is a pilot project and partnership between the Bloorview School Authority and the University of Toronto’s Jackman Institute of Child Study (ICS) Lab School.

The only program of its kind in Ontario, IKP brings non-disabled students into an environment that’s already adapted for children with disabilities. This reverse-integration approach allows disabled students to attend therapy more easily and frequently while going to school. But studies show that such an environment also reduces prejudice, fosters greater community and promotes greater inclusion among peers than at integrated classes in schools where resources are often scarce and individualized attention lacking, and where a disabled student is often the only one in the class.

IKP not only benefits kids with disabilities, but also their non-disabled classmates. Far from holding them back from a typical education, children in the program, parents report, benefit from individualized attention focused on play- and inquiry-based learning. Parents say their kids are more attuned to the needs of all people, disabled or not.

“I didn’t actually talk to my girls about disability,” says Robin Green, whose twin girls, Sydney and Isabella, attend the IKP class and don’t have disabilities. “On their first day of school I said, ‘Oh, by the way, some of the kids will have wheelchairs or walkers. Have a great day.’ This is not an environment that is imbalanced or patronizing; this is just human beings understanding and supporting other human beings.”

Integrated Kindergarten Program students Gabe and Isa.

But after 21 years in operation and despite the benefits, the Bloorview School Authority has announced plans to suspend the program for the 2017-18 school year, citing low enrolment of non-disabled students.

“Many possible avenues have been pursued to help increase enrolment for this class,” reads a letter to parents from Bloorview School Authority’s director of education, Michael O’Keefe. He cites a 50 per cent drop in tuition for non-disabled students. (Parents of students with disabilities do not pay.) “Unfortunately, these efforts have not led to the generation of any new students, and at this point in time there are no typically developing students enrolled in the program for 2017-2018.”

But parents say it’s unacceptable to put the program on hold right now and that the Bloorview School Authority’s efforts to recruit new students may have been inadequate.

“I don’t know that the right effort was put toward attracting kids. I don’t know all the details, but it seems that the leadership of the program wasn’t clearly defined, so maybe the marketing wasn’t clearly defined. Maybe there wasn’t as much marketing done as could have been done,” says Beth Dangerfield, leader of Partners for IKP, the parents’ group formed to save the program. The group is working to present a new marketing and funding model at the June 6 Bloorview School Authority board meeting.

“We think a new model needs to happen. For example, nobody should pay. But in the meantime, we can’t suspend the program for 2017 because it’s very difficult to get it back up and running. Instead, we should have an interim plan before moving forward with a longer-term plan,” she says. The group hopes to raise money and find sponsorship for funding.

The Bloorview School Authority wouldn’t comment on its marketing efforts, but principal Linda Ward did send NOW Magazine a statement from the board:

“The board has established a committee to consider the long-term future of all aspects of the Integrated Kindergarten Program. In the interim, the Jackman ICS has been asked to develop a proposal regarding September 2017. The board does not wish to comment on the matter until it has had the time and information necessary to give due consideration to both of these initiatives.”

Mika Hjorngaard at five years old. Now, Mika Hjorngaard is 18.

For now, the IKP has been given a stay of execution. Partners for IKP is waiting to get permission to use Bloorview’s marketing materials and logos before making its presentation, so the future of the program is still in limbo

“Most of all, I think it’s a loss for future generations of kids who are going to miss out on this opportunity to participate in a school that really fosters togetherness and inclusion in a way that most schools don’t,” says Mika Hjorngaard, an 18-year-old graduate of the program. She believes the skills she learned in the IKP program helped her better advocate for herself and gave her superior tools to manage life with a disability.

“In my everyday life I have to confront questions about how come I walk funny. In the IKP, the adults’ answers to kids’ questions about what a disability is and why people use wheelchairs and walkers really helped me learn how to talk to people who have no idea what my disability is, how it affects me and that it doesn’t change me as a person.”

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