By Janet Richards, The Intelligencer
Wednesday, May 7, 2014 8:09:15 EDT PM
BELLEVILLE – If support staff hours are cut at Sagonaska Demonstration School, it will be like a prison for residential students, says the parent of a child there.
Garry Lake, whose 14-year-old son is in Grade 9 at the Belleville school, said cuts at the school will only hurt the students.
“It sucks,” said Lake, of the Ministry of Education's announcement it is reducing the seasonal employment of hundreds of support staff at provincial schools including at Sagonaska and Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf.
“It's the best kept secret in Ontario, or the worst,” Lake said of Sagonaska. “It took a year to get my son in. We had phenomenal help from the traditional school he was in before.”
Even the staff at that school were unaware of Sagonaska and it's program until Lake's family learned about it through a sociologist in London, ON.
“My son is ADHD and also has comprehension issues with reading,” said Lake. “He has been in three specialized programs and this is the first one that has made significant leads. This year alone his reading has risen about four grade levels.”
Lake, who is on the school's parent association, said students have a regular school day which is followed by another two to three hours of homework with a residential counsellor.
The Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) contends the cuts by the ministry will mean a loss of preparation time for those residential counsellors, time spent talking with teachers and preparing for homework.
Lake believes this will also jeopardize the social aspect for students.
“I've seen the frustration in my son,” said Lake. “With all the work he does, he looks forward to the social aspect of that hour or two in the evening. If we start losing that the students are going to feel imprisoned.”
Chris Cormier, regional vice-president of OPSEU Region 4, said the cuts will result in a loss of about 7,000 hours of student supports between Sagonaska and Sir James Whitney.
A solidarity lunch was held at the site of the two schools Wednesday where about 100 people demonstrated with signs to raise awareness.
“We've had no response from the government on these cuts,” said Cormier. “Now, with a provincial election, we want to ensure people in the community understand. These children should not have to pay for the budget deficit.”
Examples of the types of support staff affected by the cuts are residential counsellors, American Sign Language interpreters, educational assistants and secretarial and support staff, said Cormier.
Ken Roberts, president of the Belleville Association for the Deaf and a former teacher at Sir James Whitney, said (through an interpreter) he really disapproves of the cuts.
“The kids need full-time staff, they don't need limited hours,” said Roberts. “I understand the economic issues and cuts are necessary but they shouldn't be from people working with the children.”
Erika Stebbins said she agreed with Roberts. Stebbins is the co-chairwoman of the school council at Sir James Whitney and has a seven-year-old son in Grade 1.
“Students have to be a priority,” she said through an interpreter. “My son struggles, if there is no support staff how will students be encouraged to have confidence in their skills?”
For Rexana Mark the cuts could have a direct impact on her school life.
The 14-year-old Grade 9 student is on the student parliament at the school and helps organize events and activities.
“I'm very concerned the cutbacks are going to directly impact on the students,” Mark said through an interpreter. “If we don't have the support there's no point in even going to this school.”
A day student since she was three, Mark said her biggest concern is special needs students, adding the cuts are “not right.”
Cormier said OPSEU plans to make the cuts an election issue questioning all local candidates and perhaps organizing a debate specifically on the topic.
An online petition to persuade the ministry to reverse the decision has more than 2,000 signatures. It can be found at www.change.org by searching 'reverse cuts at provincial schools'.
“The agreement with OPSEU seasonal employees allowed employees to work additional hours to remain on payroll for the twelve work days of the school year when the schools are closed during Christmas and March break,” said Gary Wheeler of the Ministry of Education's communications branch.
Wheeler noted the changes mean staff will no longer be able to work additional hours to be paid for time when students are not in school like during March Break and the holiday season.
“This is about how work hours are scheduled and paid, not about job or service reductions,” he added. “There will be no impact to services and support offered to students. The same number of hours of support will continue to be provided to students and this will not compromise student safety.”
Wheeler added the ministry cannot speculate on whether the results of the June 12 election would or would not change current policy.