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How the suburbs swayed me

Posted Nov 13 2013 10:51am

Last year Sue Robins wrote an anonymous BLOOM piece about her son's deteriorating school situation. "I see now that I felt I had to be anonymous because I feared the ramifications of speaking out for our son," she says. "I'm no longer fearful to use my voice to speak up." Here's an update on how things have gone since Sue's family moved 18 months ago to get her son into a more inclusive school. "While no situation is perfect, our crisis in 2012 reminded me to always listen to my gut—sometimes giving up and walking away is the best choice for our children." Thanks Sue! Louise

How the suburbs swayed me
By Sue Robins

I arrived in the suburbs kicking and screaming. Our family came in exile from a mature neighbourhood near the university. We had a gorgeous, flat-roofed 1960s home, with a walk-out basement and a wrap-around balcony. The river valley was down the street, and our chocolate Labrador retriever could frolic in the nearby farmland. We were 10 minutes to the hospital, where I worked, and close to the subway. On paper, this was one idyllic place. Except for one thing:  no nearby school would educate our son.

Our youngest son has Down syndrome, and the idea of inclusion and cognitive diversity is still foreign to schools that boast academic excellence, or those staffed with teachers nearing retirement, or the one where the principal told us:

"If I let one special needs in here, they will all want to come here."
Three local community schools would not educate my son because of his differences, offering instead what amounted to a reluctant babysitting service.  I knew in my heart that my boy could learn and excel and grow academically if he was taught in a way that he understood. 

My most strident inclusion friends say that you can make inclusion work anywhere. But after countless meetings with my son’s Grade 3 teacher and principals, and too many times being summoned to the principal’s office to pick up my weeping boy, we knew the little community school wasn’t working. 

For four years, we did everything we could to make it work: I volunteered and my husband sat on Parent Council as Treasurer. But our son's troubles and social isolation never went away. He was labeled a "behavior problem" and written off. One day, I couldn't bring myself to take him to school for another day of misery. I gave up. I pulled him out of that community school and he never went back.

This is where the suburbs entered my line of vision. We happened to be friends with a soccer dad who was the assistant principal in a distant suburban school.  The school was new, and already overflowing with kids. It was in a neighbourhood teeming with young families, about 20 minutes further out from our urban home. We met with the school leadership, who were progressive and enthusiastic about welcoming our son to the school. I felt the smallest flicker of hope. 

There’s always a rub. The new school has closed boundaries. So we had to sell the beloved home we'd lived in for a decade to move neighbourhoods. And that meant moving to the suburbs—very much against my will. The day we moved was bittersweet. We left quietly, and sadly, from a place that had never ever accepted our son.  A community that excludes one is not a community at all.

Reflecting back, I see that acceptance comes slowly. It has taken me a year-and-a-half, but I’ve finally come around to suburban living. Yes, it takes 40 minutes to get downtown, but as a freelance writer, how often do I go downtown, anyhow? I can walk to get my groceries, something I could never do in the old neighbourhood. Independent, boutique stores are popping up amongst the chains in the strip mall—including a bakery, pub, flower shop, kitchen store and Indian restaurant. There is a gorgeous new recreation centre that my son considers his second home. This somehow doesn’t seem too bad. 

The neighbourhood is surprisingly ethnically and socio-economically diverse.  The density out here is higher than it is in the core of the city—with apartments, townhomes and affordable single-family homes being built at a fast pace. I know the "mature neighbourhood" citizens hate us urban-sprawl types. I used to feel that same disdain for suburbanites too. But I like to say that there’s a reason we live here: for some, it is the affordable price for land and housing, and for others, like us, it is because of the quality of the schools.
While I lost the status of a more prestigious neighbourhood, and a bigger home, our son gained so much more. We now walk across the street to school every day. He has teachers that believe he can learn, and his reading levels have taken a considerable jump. The leadership team treats our family with respect, and communications from the school are balanced and positive. Our boy still receives few play-date and birthday-party invitations, but in school, he is included and treated with warmth and dignity. Most importantly, he is valued in that school, where he spends seven hours of his day. I’ve seen his confidence rise as the teachers and his assistant nurture his independence, and demonstrate to him that he has worth.
And that means a lot more than a big old house in a leafy neighbourhood, doesn’t it? (Yes it does, dear readers. Yes it does). 
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