Moncton private school for students with learning disabilities ends day school

A private school in Moncton that specializes in teaching children with learning disabilities is ending its day school program in September, citing a lack of support from the province.

It wasn't an easy decision, said Rebecca Halliday, director of Riverbend Community School. 

"It's heartbreaking for sure."

But after six years of trying to partner with government on a tuition support program, it's time to close — at least for now, she said.

"Families in our community just really can't afford the full tuition necessary to keep it going."

Riverbend tuition costs $11,500 annually per student. Halliday has unsuccessfully lobbied former governments to follow the lead of other provinces, such as Nova Scotia and Ontario, and create a tuition transfer program, which would allow the money allocated per student in the public system to travel with a student to the private school.

Halliday estimated that would cover about $7,500 to $8,000, comparable to Nova Scotia.

Department of Education officials could not immediately be reached for comment on Friday afternoon.

Mother worried

Riverbend will continue to offer tutoring programs and support parents, said Halliday.

But Nicole Frye-Tobin doesn't know what her son Colin, 15, will do without the day school.

"It has meant everything to us," she said, fighting back tears.

Colin, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, "didn't fit into the public school system and the public school system didn't fit him. But he fit at Riverbend."

When he started at the private school, he was in Grade 5 and didn't know how to read, said Frye-Tobin.

Riverbend let him learn the way he needed to. - Nicole Frye-Tobin, parent

Today, thanks to the small and quiet environment of Riverbend, which is located in a Victorian home, and the personalized attention he received, he loves to read and loves to learn," she said.

"Riverbend let him learn the way he needed to."

He also has more confidence and skills. 

"They taught him how to advocate for himself, to self-soothe the things that really upset him, and to find ways to deal with his social anxiety and the learning disabilities themselves," said Frye-Tobin.

"He's coming out of Riverbend a strong student and a strong person — somebody that now knows who he is and his capabilities. And I don't think without Riverbend we could have done that."

'Recipe for success'

Vanessa Blanch/CBC

Halliday said Colin is just one of the school's many success stories. She believes the "home away from home" environment has been key for the students with learning disabilities, who process information and their environment differently.

The students also got to be around other students who are "wired like them," she said.

"I think seeing the commonality in each other was a big piece of the healing process because when these kids come to me, typically they're pretty jaded about school and learning or they're frustrated.

"So understanding that there is a place for them where they can find like-minded peers or practise their skills" means a lot.

Halliday, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder herself, also credits the teaching approach at Riverbend.

"We really get these kids. So I think, combined, it just made for a really good recipe for success."

'Awesome school'

Grade 10 sudent Taylor McFadden, who has dyslexia, describes Riverbend as "an awesome school for differently wired brains."

Taylor, 14, said she didn't  understand what learning disabilities were when she started at Riverbend. 

"Everybody that pretty much starts out not knowing what they are feels like they're stupid and they're not fit for a lot of stuff, but Riverbend has got me through a lot of stress and the work I'm going now I wouldn't [have been] able to do a couple of years ago."

Halliday has been like a mother to her, she said, and her fellow students, like siblings.

Taylor doesn't even want to think about next year.

"I know everything's going to be different and that's one of my triggers, [when] things go differently than how I want," she said.

Halliday said that although the day program is ending this fall, she remains hopeful some kind of support program can eventually be developed either with the province or a private partner.

"My dream still exists, it's not going away," she said. "I'm going to keep campaigning."

In the meantime, she takes comfort knowing that students like Colin and Taylor "leave stronger" and have new opportunities because of Riverbend.

"They get that they're not broken," she said, and that has "maybe changed the whole trajectory of their lives."