Though their plans to open a midtown Toronto school for children with Asperger syndrome have been put on hold, moms Margot Nelles and Wanda Bogris are determined to make it work.
The duo had hoped to open the Black Oak Academy, which would cater to students with Asperger's from Grades 1 to 8, at Yonge Street and Eglinton Avenue in September.
Due to construction at the site and the cost of space in the midtown area, however, Nelles and Bogris have decided to put off the planned opening until at least January 2011.
"We just decided that right now we need to postpone the opening to find another location," said Bogris, who lives in Scarborough. "We're trying to look at it as though we're going full-steam ahead with the school as planned, but we need a location that will work for the children and families."
The women are both mothers of children with Asperger syndrome, a disorder on the autism spectrum that requires additional educational support, particularly in helping with communication and social skills.
Children with Asperger's are often mistakenly believed to be less intelligent than they are or viewed as having behaviour problems due to the fact they are sensitive, exhibit repetitive behaviour or show a lack of awareness as to how to behave in social situations.
Given their own experience raising children with Asperger's, the women understand how a lack of resources and understanding in the mainstream school system can fall far short of the needs of some children.
They have worked to create support and resources for families with children who have Asperger's - Nelles launched the Aspergers Society of Ontario and the pair teamed up to create aspergers et al (for which a temporary website has been set up at http://aspergersetal.community.officelive.com) - but want to do even more to help families for whom support is often costly and difficult to secure.
The school they envision will feature special programs to help children with the disorder but, even though they plan to run it as a not-for-profit, they must find ways to raise funds to make it as accessible as possible.
"We want everybody who should go to the school to be able to go to the school," Bogris said. "We don't want it to be an elite Asperger's school in the sense that only people with a lot of money can afford it."
Special programming for children with autism spectrum disorders can cost as much as $25,000 per child, which they acknowledge is out of reach for many parents, and the duo is looking for a way to subsidize as much of each student's education as possible.
They have already found ways to cut tuition costs per student to $20,000, still a hefty price tag, but still less than many families with children with Asperger's pay for private schooling and in-home therapy.
"Quite often, because of the difficulties these kids face in the public school system, one parent is not able to work," Nelles said.
Black Oak Academy will feature an in-depth screening process, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and other features, all tailored to individual students' needs.
Lunches and snacks will not only be provided, they will be prepared by the students, which will teach skills from healthy eating to social skills to teamwork and math.
Nelles and Bogris are also looking into setting up a calming room, with Snoezelen apparatus to provide multisensory stimulation.
Those sorts of features are nowhere on the horizon for traditional schools, often leaving children with Asperger's ill-served and isolated.
"There are lots of good teachers and good administrators but there's a lack of resources, a lack of understanding and no board support (for the needs of children with Asperger's)," said Nelles an Avenue Rd. and Lawrence Ave. resident.
Class sizes will be small and teachers will have experience working with children on the autism spectrum, ensuring each student gets the proper care. Nelles and Bogris have also forged a relationship with Ryerson University and will have Ryerson students helping as educational assistants.
"These (Ryerson) students will have a chance to see kids with Asperger's and they can take that information into the work they're going to go do elsewhere," Nelles said. "It will help create more understanding."
Because it will be set up specifically for children with Asperger's, the school will allow both parents to hold down jobs without having to worry about being called away.
"We're telling people their children will not be sent home and you will not be called to the school for so-called behavioural reasons," Bogris said.
The pair feel by having experts on hand providing specialized programming that adheres to the Ontario school curriculum, it will provide a solid foundation to help the students integrate more easily into mainstream society.
"Our theory is if the support is there from the get-go, behaviour won't become an issue," Nelles said.
While the school is currently in a holding pattern, Nelles and Bogris are looking at possible new locations, hoping to find some low-cost or free space, preferably in midtown Toronto to make it accessible to as many families as possible.
They are open to moving the location, however, if that is what it takes to ensure it gets up and running.
"We would like to stay in (the Yonge and Eglinton) area, but it might be cost-prohibitive," Bogris said.
They are also looking at setting up a foundation to give out grants to parents to help cover assessment and therapy costs, seeking sponsorships and researching ways to partner with existing schools in hopes of eventually using their school as a model for the public school system.
They are also dedicated to opening up schools across Ontario over the next few years, using the Toronto school as a pilot.
Before they can do that, however, they must find a way to make their current pet project the success they feel it will be.
While they were disappointed their plan to open Black Oak Academy at Yonge and Eglinton this fall has not come together, Nelles and Bogris are determined not to let the setback stand in their way.
If anything, they are making use of the time to lay groundwork in other important areas.
"If we take a break now to figure out and maybe change locations, we can use that time to get money, get donations coming in so the parents don't have to pay a bunch of money," Bogris said.
For more information on the school's status or to make a donation, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 416-844-9807.