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By Mike Pickford
As the clock continues to tick down on the popular Teddy Bear Playschool program at Orangeville District Secondary School (ODSS), one local resident is refusing to sit back and simply watch the long-time local initiative die without a fight.
When Tricia Hebert first learned that the provincial government had effectively pulled the plug on the program after making changes to its child care regulations in 2015, she decided pretty quickly that she wanted to stand up and do something about it.
With almost 30 years of history in the community, the Teddy Bear Playschool program has provided hundreds of students with the opportunity to learn first-hand about children and how to properly care for them.
Open to students in Grades 11 and 12, the initiative forms a key part of the school's Working with Infants and Young Children course and sees the high-school seniors work directly with a collection of pre-schoolers twice a week in order to fully experience what it's like to take care of a child.
On Tuesday, Ms. Hebert was joined by several local parents and students in hosting a peaceful demonstration outside ODSS in hopes of raising awareness throughout the community that this “wonderful” program is at risk of shutting down for good.
“We're here today to send a message to the provincial government, the Upper Grand District School Board and anyone else that is listening, that this program matters to students, it matters to parents and it matters to all the pre-schoolers,” Ms. Hebert told the Citizen.
Grade 11 student Emilee Dunn is currently enrolled in what could well be the final semester of Teddy Bear Playschool at ODSS. While she's only a few weeks into the course, Ms. Dunn says she can already see the benefits the unique program brings to students.
“Personally, I think it's very important for us to be able to spend time with the kids in the Teddy Bear Playschool program,” Ms. Dunn said. “The experience we get from spending time with the children and learning from them is completely different to anything we get in a classroom setting.”
Ms. Dunn added, “You can't learn everything out of a textbook.”
Local parent Nicole Black has seen three of her young children pass through the program as “little buddies” and she says she can't believe the provincial government is allowing procedural changes to stand in the way of such an “amazing” program.
“Teddy Bear Playschool is a phenomenal program, both for the older students and the young children. My kids have grown up so much and learned so many new things thanks to this program,” Ms. Black said. “It's amazing coming in to pick up your baby at the end of the day and find out they've learned a new song or dance, or learned something from the one on one time they spend with the students. It's sad to think that this won't be here for more people to benefit from in the future.”
With close to 50 people in attendance at the demonstration and a combined 850 signatures on online and paper petitions to go along with letters of support from Orangeville Mayor Jeremy Williams and Dufferin-Caledon MPP Sylvia Jones, Ms. Hebert believes the community has spoken and is now calling on the Upper Grand board to stand behind its parent and student bodies and do whatever it can to ensure the Teddy Bear Playschool program remains at ODSS for years to come.
“Clearly, when you look at all the people that are here today and you acknowledge all the names on the petitions, there are a lot of people in this community that would like to see this program continue,” Ms. Hebert said. “Our first step is to go to the Upper Grand District School Board to see if they would consider actually licensing this program so that we could continue to run it here in this facility legitimately. If they're not interested in that, then at the very least I'd like to find out if we have their support and backing if we take this one step further.”
That one step further, says Ms. Hebert, is to take this issue to Queen's Park in Toronto.
“If we're not successful in our bid to have the program licensed by the school board, I'd like to see if we can have an exemption written into the new legislation so that this incredibly program can still exist and continue to provide the unique education it provides to students today,” Ms. Hebert said.
Should the issue go that far, it appears the local community group would have at least one supporter at the provincial legislature with Ms. Jones speaking very favourably about the program when contacted by the Citizen.
“I think it's very important for students and young people that are considering a career with children to be provided every opportunity to engage in some hands on learning experience while they're at school. I think that's invaluable,” Ms. Jones said. “The fact that we've had this program in place at ODSS for almost 30 years speaks volumes about the interest there has been in this program and how successful it has been. It's a real shame that provincial child care regulations have changed in a way that is going to prevent the program from continuing.”
Ms. Hebert will be making her case before the school board at its meeting in Guelph next Tuesday, Feb. 28, after which she says she'll know what direction she needs to take moving forward.
“It's so sad to me to see people that would be so willing to let this wonderful program go without a fight,” Ms. Hebert said. “That isn't me. I'll continue fighting for our students and fighting for our children – all of us that support Teddy Bear Playschool are here to be the voice for those that maybe can't or won't be heard.”
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