When Nikolas Koschany attended Toronto’s Cardinal Carter Academy for the Arts, there was one person who helped him manage his Aspergers Syndrome and develop his personal skills outside the classroom.
Her name was Franca Gioffre and she’s the last of the school’s educational assistants (EAs).
After 17 years helping special needs students graduate, she was told her position was “redundant.”
Now, students are petitioning the school and its board to reverse the decision.
“I, honestly, do not think that I would have been able to build the social skills necessary to be able to continue on and succeed in life without the help of her,” said Koschany, one of more than 500 people who have signed the petition.
The decision is dictated by Ministry of Education rules that require moving EAs where they’re most needed, according to the Toronto Catholic District School Boards.
But Gioffre refuses to see special needs students as numbers.
“Funding doesn’t allow for these children to get the support that they need,” she said. “Everyone needs to look at them as an individual.”
Petitioners say Gioffre’s impact extends well past her Individualized Education Program (IEP) students.
“My whole grade, my whole circle of friends to this day, all have stories about how she’s helped us,” said former student Sid D’souza.
D’souza didn’t have an IEP, but credits Gioffre for coming to him when she recognized he needed help.
“If I didn’t have that, I probably wouldn’t have had a passing grade on most of my tests,” he said.
“It’s a small gesture, but for someone who’s dealing with anxieties and learning difficulties, it’s a mile-long gesture,” Gioffre said. “They’re stressed out to the max and they leave a special ed. room with a smile on their face.”
Gioffre’s children, Mike and Nancy, started the petition.
“The position is so vital at the school. We’re just kind of in shock that the board is just eliminating that role at Cardinal Carter, altogether,” Mike said. “It devalues the school, because this could affect mental health for students.”
Maria Rizzo, the trustee for the ward, says she’s broken-hearted and worries the school will suffer without Gioffre.
Rizzo began receiving calls immediately after the petition launched. She says the superintendent told her most of the school’s special needs students were graduating and “there’s not enough dollars to go around.”
“We should be putting up statutes to her, not telling her that she’s redundant,” Rizzo said. “(She’s a) special person who knows that community, knows those kids, knows what to do with them, helps them academically, just an amazing human being.”
“Why doesn’t funding be put in place so that every school has at least one educational assistant and not rip (short-change) a school of totally zero assistance?” wondered Gioffre.
Her students couldn’t believe the news.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” D’souza said. “It’s a very uncalculated decision that people who are not even in that environment are making.”
“I don’t think the solution is to just move an EA around like Mrs. Gioffre; it’s to hire more educational assistants,” finished Koshany.