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Parents advocate for 'certainty' amidst 'stressful' review of special education program

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Parents of children with learning disabilities are seeking "certainty" on the long-term status of a program that provides tailored special education support in language and math within schools.

During Tuesday's meeting of trustees for the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB), parents Ilana Mizel and Joanna Conrad — who both have children with learning disabilities — were visibly emotional while discussing the stress they are feeling over an ongoing review of the GECDSB's RISE program.

"I'm here to tell you that it has been incredibly stressful...not to have any certainty about what type of supports and accommodations our children are going to have not only next year, but for the rest of their education," said Mizel.

Students enrolled in the RISE program (Reaching Individual Success and Excellence) receive specialized instruction focused on language, arts, and math in a classroom with eight to 11 students.

"My child is seven years old. He's in grade two. I have no confidence that he's going to be accommodated beyond this June. He requires accommodations," said Mizel.

That's because the GECDSB faces a $8.9 million budget deficit in the upcoming 2024-25 academic year.

During an April 2 meeting, the board's Superintendent of Business and Treasurer Shelley Armstrong said one of the "single biggest contributors to that deficit" is "hundreds of unfunded positions in special education."

Speaking to trustees during another meeting on April 16, Mizel said she hopes the school board understands the importance of sustaining the RISE program for the long-term.

"There's no certainty for any of the parents in that program. We need that certainty because it's a daily stress, not knowing what is going to happen," said Mizel. "I am strongly encouraging the board to take an outlook that gives parents and children who have many years left in elementary school some reason to believe our children will have the consistent special education support that they need."

Conrad, who has a daughter with Down syndrome, also appealed to trustees during the April 16 meeting.

An undated photo of Joanna Conrad and her child. (Source: Joanna Conrad)

"To my knowledge, neither anyone with decision-making power here or in the government has a learning disability or a child with one. I emphasize this because it's inconceivable that special education would even be considered for cost saving measures," she said. "If they did, you'd understand the exhaustion parents of children with disabilities feel from the battles we face every day, big and small."

According to the president of the Greater Essex County Teacher Local, there will be approximately 22 fewer positions in special education for the upcoming 2024-25 school year.

"If there's fewer teachers, they're going to spend less time with the students that need them," said Greater-Essex Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario President Mario Spagnuolo.

Spagnuolo added, unlike other regions in Ontario, Windsor-Essex sees many of its teachers stick around for many years.

He said this serves as an opportunity for upper levels of government and school boards to invest in its local special education teachers.

Instead, the opposite is being considered.

"School boards are looking at special education as a place to save money," said Spagnuolo. "It has a huge impact on kids because these are the kids that need support the most.

Conrad, a member of the GECDSB's Special Education Advisory Committee (SEAC) and parent of a 9-year-old daughter with Down syndrome, also spoke to the negative impact of eliminating special education positions.

"There's staff shortages in every single school, greater demands on teachers and students slipping through the cracks," said Conrad. "This is not only a concern for students who benefit directly from programs like RISE. All students will be impacted. They already are."

Conrad ended her presentation to school board trustees Tuesday with a message, on behalf of her 9-year-old child.

"As a mother who made a promise to her daughter that I will give her all of the opportunities she deserves for a meaningful life, I will not stop not here," said Conrad.

CTV News reached out to all 12 trustees with the GECDSB. Kim McKinley, who also serves as SEAC chair, was the only one who provided comment on this story by publication time.

According to McKinley, the SEAC and board trustees have yet to receive a report on the findings on the RISE review.

"I'm hoping we will see it for our May SEAC meeting. That is when we actually see what the review says," McKinley said, adding the review started in October 2023 when interviews were conducted with students, staff members, and families. "Until then, I don't know more than anybody else. We weren't part of the review but we receive it."

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