In a last minute change of heart by the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board It looks like the current crop of Parkview students will be allowed to remain in the special education program until they leave school, but no new students will be admitted into the program. The new plan would see as many students as possible to move to Mountain Secondary School. The debate over Parkview School’ s future boiled down to two visions of Utopia—one where special needs students are fully integrated and accepted by the general student population; and another where special needs students are nurtured in a protected environment that allows them to develop their potential. When the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board started a series of 14 public meetings in 2011 to determine which schools in North-Central Hamilton should be closed, concerns about the future of the special education programs at Parkview School were repeatedly raised.
The Parkview Program caters to secondary school students who have a variety of educational challenges ranging from learning disabilities and behavioural issues to forms of autism. For a long time Parkview had been pointed to as a model for educating at-risk teens. But it appeared that view had changed at the official level. Parents were concerned that if the Parkview students were fully integrated with the general school population that they would feel intimidated and be at risk of being bullied and shunned. The concerns quieted somewhat when, in May of 2012, the Board released its final report that, while recommending closure of Parkview, Sir John A McDonald and Delta; it specifically addressed concerns about Parkview. as long as the students and staff remain together then the program will be successful. To concerned parents this amounted to an assurance that the program, teachers and students would be transferred intact into a new school. In the less than two years since the Parkview closure was first announced there had been an apparent philosophical shift in HWDSB thinking. Board Chair Jessica Brennan acknowledged that, saying the board wanted to move to an “inclusive” model where Parkview students, would henceforth receive their education in an integrated classroom environment in their own neighbourhood schools. Moving from the 2012 position, that the Parkview program was a success that deserved to be preserved, she told the Bay Observer earlier this month that the Parkview program was now seen as “ineffective.”
In response to questions from the Bay Observer on why attitudes had changed, the Board Chair wrote: our whole approach to how we deliver these programs has changed. We believe that success should not be determined by how a student learns or where a student lives. The research is clear – when students of various socio-economic or academic backgrounds are unequally distributed between schools there are lower student outcomes. With regard to introducing the Parkview students into the general school population, Chair Brennan said, “whatever supports these students need they will get.” Supporters of the Parkview model disagreed. Christine Bingham, a Westdale resident whose son has a form of autism, says every time there is a major upheaval in his life he regresses. “I wonder how they are going to supply ‘supports’ and ‘programming’ in every school,” she recently wrote. “We parents have fought every year for the most minimal amount of support possible always being told there isn’t enough money to hire more. Even with Parkview at only one third of the support necessary for over 200 special education students, they managed to give pride and self esteem to each student. Parkview students want to come to school. It has the highest attendance record of ‘at risk’ youth. “ She also disputes accusations that Parkview had a poor graduation rate when certificate programs and direct entry to jobs is taken into account. Both sides in the debate cite academic research to support their positions.
The HWDSB has cited the work of University of New Brunswick professor and education expert J Douglas Willms as proponent of the “inclusion” line of thinking, although in a 2011 interview Dr. Willms, in talking about what he thinks makes students feel engaged, alluded to a learning environment that Parkview proponents feel could easily describe Parkview. He wrote, “Engagement, for me, is … viewing learning as fun, seeing it as important, seeing the value of working with and functioning as part of a team, being part of a social institution. To me, those are critically important lifelong skills.” Trustee Brennan said specialty schools like Parkview were being “phased out” across the province, but the Toronto District School Board website says “the TDSB offers 22 alternative schools at the secondary level. Each school is a close-knit, highly engaged, diverse community that offers a fresh and unique approach to learning,” reads the Board’s website. Some students at Parkview possess a surprising degree of self-awareness about who they are and how they fit in…or don’t. Parkview student Lynn Watkins in an open letter to media wrote, “Parkview Students won’t be able to fit into a regular High School. They’ll want to drop out or they would commit suicide from being bullied or tormented because of how they look, the way they are and the previous School they went to. All or most of the students couldn’t handle regular schools. I couldn’t even handle a regular School.”
Parkview accepts anyone even the mentally and physically delayed. Hey, they accepted me right? That is why Parkview is so special and it deserves to see its 100th Anniversary. How many more voices do you need to hear to understand how much this School is needed by all of its staff, students and its community?” Possibly with the aid of some prompting, Parkview students at a recent protest rally nonetheless were heard chanting, “We don’t want to be (HWDSB Education Director) John Malloy’s experiment.” What’s very much in doubt at this point is the fate of at-risk children currently heading into high school.