By Joseph Quigley 
BELLEVILLE – The survival of a specialized Belleville school for children with learning disabilities could be under threat, but those who work there are not letting it happen without fighting back.
Parents, students, teachers and school employees gathered outside Sagonaska Demonstration School  and Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf , its neighbour on Dundas Street West, on Monday to protest how the Ontario government is handling the schools, as well as the possibility that they could close.
Enrolment for Sagonaska was suspended in February and the school’s future is being reviewed by the provincial government – along with Ontario’s other three demonstration schools in Ottawa , Milton  and London , and the Robarts School for the Deaf  in London. Education Minister Liz Sandals has not confirmed whether any of these schools will remain open.
Sandals has said that Sir James Whitney will stay open and is not under any review.
But regional Ontario Public Service Employees Union  vice-president Gareth Jones said the writing is on the wall for Sagonaska after its enrolment was suspended.
“The ministry conducted a review and Sagonaska’s clearly on the chopping block,” Jones said during Monday’s demonstration. “We want them to change their minds. We want them to re-evaluate the decision we believe they already made – to keep this (school) open. To put the welfare of these kids first.”
Students can attend demonstration schools for one or two years before being reintegrated into mainstream schools. At Sagonaska there are 39 students from grades 6 to 9, aged 11 to 15.
Jones added that he fears Sir James Whitney could come under threat of closure in the future because of the province’s scrutiny of special-needs schools.
Concern for the schools has been elevated because of a 2012 government report  on public services. Along with recommending the closure of the province’s three demonstration schools, the report suggested that Ontario’s three schools for the deaf be consolidated onto one site. This would lead to savings that could be directed toward putting more specialized programs for students with learning disabilities into school boards and expanding program offerings for deaf students, it said.
But Sandy Hartling, who has a granddaughter attending Sir James Whitney, said the specialized schools greatly benefit students and their families.
“I know what these schools do for families, for children that attend them, and it would be criminal to take that away from people,” said Hartling. “I’ve seen big changes in the way families function once kids start attending these classes, and I can’t believe that anybody would want to close it.”
Employees at the schools were out in force at the demonstration. Daryl O’Grady, president of OPSEU Local 456, which represents support staff excluding teachers at Sir James Whitney and Sagonaska, said that as many as 150 jobs are under threat with the potential closing of Sagonaska.
“Unfortunately, the people who work at these schools won’t have jobs,” said O’Grady, who works as a residential counsellor at the school. “A lot of them specialize in working with kids with exceptionalities and this is what they do. They’re child and youth workers; they’re people who went to college to work with these type of kids. These jobs don’t exist anymore.
“A lot of these people are fearful for where they’re going to work now.”
But the primary concern for the demonstrators is the children who attend the schools, he said.
“They’re more concerned about the kids and the future of the kids. That’s why we’re here today.”
The ministry of education is consulting  with students, teachers, parents and staff of demonstration schools, saying it wants to explore the best ways to serve special-needs students before deciding on the future of the schools. The consultations include both online surveys and face-to-face meetings.
Sagonaska parents’ council chair Lesley Lehman said she understands why the government needs to hold consultations on schools like Sagonaska.
“I’m not against consultations. Every company has to do a consultation, has to do a data analysis – they have to know where they are,” said Lehman.
But Lehman added that it would be better if the consultations were put on hold until the students completed this school year, to avoid stressing them.
Should Sagonaska eventually be closed, public school boards should also be given an additional school year to develop programs for special-needs children, she said.
“If Minister Sandals does close these schools, we have to make sure – we have to make damn sure – that she has set in place programs that can accommodate our children.”
A decision from the provincial government on the future of the school is expected in June.