"I'm devastated": Parents fight to keep innovative kindergarten program alive

A group of Toronto parents is fighting to keep an innovative kindergarten program alive that integrates special needs students with typically developed children.

The integrated kindergarten program at the Bloorview School Authority is being canceled for the 2017-18 year, more than 20 years after it was launched.

"I'm very shocked, and sad, and disappointed," says Beth Dangerfield, a Bloorview mom whose daughter has a communication disorder.

The school is specially designed for disabled children, and in the 1990s it partnered up with the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute of Child Study, a private school at the University of Toronto, to send able-bodied students to learn and play together with Bloorview children in kindergarten.

Parents at Bloorview swear by the benefits of the program for all children.

"It's what they're exposed to," Dangerfield says. "A different way of thinking, a way to inquire, a way to problem solve."

She adds that it teaches children at a young age about open-mindedness, kindness, and respect for diversity.

The issue is that beginning in 2010, enrolment of typically developed children began to drop, around the same time that the province began expanding full-day kindergarten.

For next year, not a single typically developed child has enrolled and the board says it has no choice but to cancel the class.

While the special needs students at Bloorview have their programs funded by the province, the typically developed students coming from the Jackman Institute have had to pay thousands of dollars in tuition.

Jackman Institute principal Richard Messina says he is devastated that the program is coming to an end.

He says the province should look at funding the full program so that no student should have to pay tuition.

"It's just now convincing them that having the able-bodied children is incredibly valuable," he says.

Dangerfield, who is planning to attend a board meeting with other parents next week to fight for the program, says it would be her dream for the province to find a way to keep it going, and even to expand it.

"In my opinion, every single classroom should be like this," she says. "But that is a lofty, lofty, lofty goal."