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Popular learning-disabilities program may get a second life

A program that takes a unique approach to learning disabilities by challenging students to retrain their brains is under review by the Toronto Catholic District School Board.

Trustees will vote whether or not to undo cuts made by a provincial supervisor to the program, known as Arrowsmith, and investigate opportunities to expand it at a board meeting Thursday.

Since the late 1990s when the TCDSB became the only public board to offer the program in North America, the learning system has become popular with parents, attracting out-of-district students at a time when school boards are battling declining enrolment.

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But when a provincial supervisor took over the board in 2008 after a spending scandal, the program became an easy target because of its $175,000 licensing fee and skepticism it had received from the special education community.

However, supervision ended in January, the trustees have regained control and the program, which was in the process of being phased out, is back on the agenda.

Trustee John Del Grande, the author of the motion to revive Arrowsmith, said only 40 out of a peak 70 students at seven schools remain in the program.

"This used to be one of the highlights, the bright points, of our board because it's unique in public education," he said.

Arrowsmith exercises are built on a concept called neuroplasticity, which refers to the brain's ability to change its structure and function. They represent a departure from traditional approaches, which generally involve compensatory methods such as letting a child with poor handwriting use a laptop or allowing a child with poor reading comprehension to take a test orally.

Through daily activities aimed at exercising weak neural pathways - such as tracing shapes while wearing an eye patch or recalling symbols - teachers believe students' brains can be trained to overcome 19 specific learning dysfunctions.

"All I hear is fantastic reviews, I don't know of a single student who didn't benefit," said trustee Sal Piccininni.

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The program was started in Toronto about 30 years ago by Barbara Arrowsmith Young. Independent schools in Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan and the United States offer it, but it often carries a daunting price tag.

The program's popularity has been fuelled partly by parents' frustrations with traditional special education. Most supports for learning dysfunctions limit student success because they "are bypassing students' limitations instead of remedying them," said Mr. Del Grande.

Half of the board's 12 trustees are new and the other half have been under supervision for more than two years, so support for Mr. Del Grande's motion is hard to gauge. On Wednesday, several said they needed more information on the program and the board's finances before they could make a decision.

In the past, Arrowsmith has been popular among trustees, and a devout group of parents have become vocal advocates. Cora Westermann became one of them after her son, Brendan, spent his Grade 6 year commuting from their home in Uxbridge to attend Arrowsmith classes at Holy Spirit Catholic School in Scarborough. When the program was axed the Westermanns enrolled Brendan in a $17,000-a-year private school in Pickering that offered it instead.

In those two years, Brendan's reading ability soared from a Grade 2 level to a Grade 8 level.

"It's also brought up his self-esteem," Ms. Westermann said. "He was calling himself stupid and Arrowsmith turned that around, it taught that he just had a different way of learning."

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About the Author
Education reporter

Kate Hammer started her journalism career in New York, chasing crime and breaking news for The New York Times. She came to the Globe and Mail in 2008 to do much of the same and ended up investigating allegations of animal cruelty and mismanagement at the Toronto Humane Society. More

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