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February 21, 2003

Parents ’ worst fears may be realized

From: Belleville Intelligencer, Canada - 21 Feb 2003

Grade 9 gone, Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf could be next

By Barry Ellsworth

Local News - About 200 people filled the auditorium at Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf Thursday and they were given a message the majority didn’t want to receive — Grade 9 is leaving the Belleville school.

And Hellen Bogie, retiring director of the body that controls the province’s three residential deaf schools, hinted that another fear may soon be realized — a consolidation into one deaf school, at E.C. Drury in Milton, because of sharply declining enrolment. That would mean the closure of Sir James Whitney, a fixture in Belleville since 1870, and the Robarts School, in London.

“Is it viable... to offer three different schools,” mused Bogie. She quickly added: “That’s all for consultations (later).”

The word “consultations” was heard often Thursday night. After a presentation by Bogie that told parents, teachers and deaf students that declining enrolment — to about 87 students (total in all grades) now from a high of 600 in 1968 — dictated consolidation of Grade 9 academics in Milton, speaker after speaker decried the lack of consultation in making the decision.

“An arbitrary decision by the Ministry of Education has been made to send academic only qualified deaf students to the Milton School for the Deaf starting this September,” Chris Buczynski, the father of a deaf student, told the crowd. “No parent, teacher, school committee or deaf student was included in this process. Why?”

His question went unanswered.

Belleville Coun. Cliff Belch, acting mayor, said there were no answers because the visiting trio couldn’t give any.

“These people are only messengers,” Belch said. “They (the government) have already made the decision.”

He agreed that this could be the beginning of the end for Sir James Whitney.

“This will be a bad blow for the city of Belleville,” Belch said after listening to about seven of 20 speakers. “We are losing, I think, a part of our heritage.”

He said it would be an even worse blow for the families who have students at the school, and for the deaf culture that has become well established here in the more than 100 years of the school’s existence.

“The decision has been made behind closed doors,” agreed Ernie Parsons, Prince-Edward Hastings MPP and the Liberal critic for persons with disabilities. He said 85 per cent of the deaf are unemployed — Sir James Whitney is the largest employer of the deaf in eastern Ontario — and the closure would worsen the situation. He vowed to fight for the school.

The move of academic and applied Grade 9 to Milton this September will affect two students in London and four from Sir James Whitney. But it is the loss of support of their families — and of the families of students moving through lower grades at Sir James — and the local deaf culture that opponents of the scheme feared.

There was one olive branch extended to irate parents and students. Bogie said any student who wanted to attend hearing high schools in the Belleville area would be able to do so with an ASL (American Sign Language) interpreter provided.

However, she added that there might not be enough ASL signers if everyone decided to go to hearing schools. That would also isolate a deaf person among the hearing students, Parsons said.

As well, students who did not want to earn a high school diploma could still attend Grade 9 at Belleville and London deaf schools and learn life skills.

Students who so choose could also be driven to the Milton school from Belleville and London on Sunday evenings, returning to their families on Fridays after school for the weekend. The separation from family was a major drawback for that scenario, parents said.

In fact, no alternative plan was palatable to parents, students or staff at Sir James Whitney.

In the end, there was a rallying cry to save Grade 9 and the school, as expressed by Buczynski.

“This is a fight that begins tonight, and we will win,” he said.

© 2003 Belleville Intelligencer