BURNABY (NEWS 1130) — Four-year-old Zoe struggles to hear speech in noisy environments and knows more words in sign language than her father, which is why the Lower Mainland’s only pre-school for children who are deaf or hard of hearing is perfect for her.
But her parents say funding cuts mean the school won’t be reopening in September.
“We’ve gotten her connected to the deaf community. She’s got friends who are deaf. She knows almost more sign language than I do, which is pretty amazing,” says Zoe’s dad Matthew Kalenuik.
The preschool is located in Burnaby’s South Slope Elementary School and run by the B.C. Society for Deaf Children.
It can take 15 kids between two-and-a-half and five years old, and is the only preschool program to offer instruction is ASL (American Sign Language). Students also have access to individual and group speech therapy.
‘She came to life in that preschool, right, it was the first time she got to relate to other kids,” Kalenuik says.
“I just want to see her happy and I want to see her succeed — and I need this government’s help in order to do that.”
He and other parents have launched a petition to save the school.
They say the closure of the preschool is just one example of chronic underfunding.
“The number of families accessing Early Intervention services has more than doubled in the past ten years, however the Ministry of Children and Family Development’s budget for these programs and services for deaf and hard of hearing children has remained the same,” the petition reads.
“Deaf and hard of hearing children are facing the most severe funding shortages in decades.”
Lisa Meneian, with the Deaf Children’s Society of B.C., says closing the school will mean the kids who go to the preschool will have to go their separate ways.
She says this won’t only take a toll on the children’s connections, learning, and friendships — it will ultimately cost the province more.
“It would actually end up costing the ministry much more money than it would to just keep our centre open. So now you would have 10 – 15 deaf children requiring one-on-one support from an early childhood educator that is fluent in sign language,” she explains.
The program often has a waitlist, Meneian says the society was focussed on finding ways to open their preschool program to more children.
“We were looking to expand over the next few years, and here we are finding ourselves in the position of potentially having to close our doors.”
In the 2016 – 2017 school year, the BC Teachers Federation said there were about 1,100 deaf or hard of hearing students enrolled in public schools. Between 85 and 125 children are born with a hearing loss in the province each year. The BCTF also said the number of children who have a hearing loss may be underreported.
In an email the Minister for Children and Family Development said work is being done to address the issue.
“Minister Conroy visited our early intervention contractor, BC Family Hearing Resource Society, and we understand the pressures that they’re feeling. Ministry staff will continue to work with the contractor and subcontractors to find solutions,” the email reads.
“We recognize the importance of early language development and access to quality intervention services for children who are deaf and hard of hearing.”