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Concerns about the future of Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf

Sir James whitney School for the Deaf has been a part of the community since 1870. Photo by Stephanie Clue, QNet News

Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf on Dundas Street West has been a part of the community since 1870. Photo by Stephanie Clue, QNet News

By Stephanie Clue [1]

BELLEVILLE – Is the school going to stay open?

That’s the question many parents are asking about Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf. [2]

Concerns have been raised recently by the Ontario Public Service Employees Union [3], which represents workers at the school, after consultations began with the provincial government as part of an efficiency initiative. The union pointed to the 2012 Drummond Report [4] from the Commission on the Reform of Ontario’s Public Services, which suggested consolidating Ontario’s three schools for the deaf into one.

“The Schools for the Deaf should be consolidated into one site to achieve a greater critical mass of students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12,” that report said. “Savings from this consolidation should be reinvested in the School for the Deaf and in enhanced opportunities for deaf learners in school boards, colleges and universities.”

Cobourg resident Liz Osawamick’s son, Miigwaans Osawamick-Sagassige, has been attending Sir James Whitney since the age of three. He is now in Grade 9, and Osawamick said that she wants him to finish high school there.

Miigwaans would not be able to attend a regular high school because he needs specialized attention, she said.

“I hope and pray that the school doesn’t close, because everything is right there,” said Osawamick. “I don’t see my son engaging with people who are speaking.”

Sir James Whitney, founded in 1870 and subsequently named for a former premier of Ontario [5], was the first school for deaf students established in the province. It is home to a total of 110 students from all over the province, including some from northern First Nations communities such as Attawapiskat [6]. The school goes from kindergarten to Grade 12 and has residences on campus.

Prince Edward-Hastings Progressive Conservative MPP Todd Smith [7] told QNet News Tuesday that he doesn’t think the school is in danger of closing. Asked about the situation during Question Period [8] at Queen’s Park on Tuesday, Ontario’s minister of education, Liz Sandals [9], said there is healthy enrolment at the school, Smith noted.

It would be unfortunate for the community if the school did close, Smith said.

“It would be devastating – not just because we would be losing the students, but we would be losing the employees as well,” he said. “This school has been a part of the community for a long, long time, and there have been many success stories from students that attended the school.”

Smith said he will be visiting the school on Friday to see first-hand what the staffing levels and student population are like.

Ontario Ministry of Education [10] spokesperson Gary Wheeler told QNet News in an email that no decisions have been made on the future of the three schools for the deaf. The government is committed to giving the students the support they need, he said.

“Our government is consulting with students, parents, staff, as well as education and community partners to explore ways to provide effective programs and services that will best support achievement and well-being,” Wheeler said.

The consultations will conclude in the spring, he said.

“Our government will carefully consider the input received from students and families,” Wheeler said. “We are committed to continuing to support all of our students across Ontario.”