'A punch to the gut': Special needs programs cut at Regina Public Schools

'A punch to the gut': Special needs programs cut at Regina Public Schools

Regina Public Schools is cutting three preschool programs for children with special needs to start making up for a $9.5-million shortfall.

The cuts follow funding reductions to the school division in last month's provincial budget.

In addition, Regina Public Schools will also shrink bus zones and offer only full-day kindergarten on alternating days rather than five half-days a week. These cuts, including the special preschool programs, account for $3 million in savings.

Regina Public Schools is still looking for a further $6.5 million in savings.  

For decades, special needs preschool students in Regina have been eligible to attend Discovery Preschools, which help children with intellectual disabilities and autism.

The cuts also hit the Communication Preschool for children who are deaf, hard of hearing or have apraxia; and the Socialization, Communication, and Education Program (SCEP), which serves vulnerable children with complex needs.

"My son is thriving in the Discovery preschool program," said Trista Wilson. "It's been a great opportunity for him. He has come leaps and bounds even since September when he started."

Her four-year-old son has a cognitive disability and attends a half-day preschool program each day at Lakeview School. 

Wilson said knowing that preschool will close leaves her feeling heartbroken.

"It feels like our government is taking our kids as numbers," Wilson said. "They're nothing more than numbers."

The director of education at Regina Public Schools said the decision was not an easy one.

"This was a very, very difficult decision for our board and administration, because in education we do believe in prevention. We do believe in early intervention," said Greg Enion.

He said students with special needs could still apply for spots in provincially-funded pre-kindergarten programs at other Regina Public Schools, a move parents said would further isolate special needs children.

"In these difficult budget times, we can only do what we're funded for," Enion said.

Program helped son with hearing loss excel

Michelle Grodecki's son was not diagnosed with hearing loss until he was almost three years old.

After only two weeks of wearing devices that allowed him to hear the world around him, Oscar began pre-kindergarten. She described her language-delayed son as self-conscious about the devices and reserved around other children.

She said that changed once he got to school.

"Within a week of being there and seeing kids with cochlear implants and seeing kids with hearing aids he was so proud to show me that he had his hearing aids on," said Grodecki.

By the time Oscar entered kindergarten, he caught up with his peers and began to excel.

Grodecki credits the preschool with incorporating sound and American Sign Language (ASL) into her son's day, and said it made a big difference to have an interpreter available who could translate for several children at once.

She noted that Saskatchewan has recently cut hearing-loss programs, and said it ranks last among the provinces for services offered to deaf and hard-of-hearing citizens. She said there are only six professional ASL interpreters in the province, and their future is uncertain.

"To find out our program, the only program of its kind in the province that allows deaf and hard of hearing children access to both spoken language and American sign language is being cut is just a punch to the gut," said Grodecki. 

More savings sought

Enion noted Regina Public Schools must still find another $5.6 million in savings before the end of June.

CUPE sent out a press release on Wednesday, condemning the cuts.

"Cuts to these programs are targeting the most vulnerable children who need a head start in school," said Jackie Christianson, president of CUPE Local 3766, in the release.

She accused the province of being short-sighted and not considering long-term implications and impacts to education.

"The government is picking which children will be the winners and which will be the losers," she said.

Grodecki called the cuts "an incredibly shortsighted move."

She said Saskatchewan currently has no early infant screening for deafness which can impact children entering preschool and kindergarten.

She said the cuts mean special needs are late being diagnosed, which in turn leaves some children "socially, emotionally [and] academically" ill-prepared for kindergarten.

"We have children who turn into adults with poor self-concept, poor literacy skills, poor numeracy skills who are going to be reliant on social assistance programs because they're not able to have jobs," said Grodecki.

"Early intervention is a way to prevent all this."