"He kind of hit a wall in the public school, where he was doing it — but he wasn't learning," recalled Richardson. "He was just lost. It has made a difference in our lives."

But experts say the road to a life-changing education for special-education students can be a hard one. Families run up against not only bureaucracy — public school systems pay millions of dollars for placement and transportation to the schools — but also a belief system that in recent years has championed "least restrictive environment," or inclusive settings.

"It's a lot of hard work individualizing programming for disabled children," said Ellen Callegary, founding partner of the Baltimore law firm of Callegary & Steedman, which focuses on special-education, disability and family-law issues.

She added that the process to get a student placed in a non-public school "can take years," as parents and educators exhaust all other options.

Callegary said that while there are public school programs that serve special-education students well, very few have compared to the services that MANSEF schools provide.

"The sad part is that we really should be able to provide highly individualized supports and services for students in their neighborhood schools," Callegary said. "We need to do a better job."

Jennell Bailey said St. Elizabeth's has changed her son's outlook on life.

"I used to be afraid of growing up," the 20-year-old says with a smile on a video at St. Elizabeth School. "I realized that growing up is a part of life."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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An earlier version of this article misspelled Deborah Carren's name. It also misstated which students often have more severe disabilities; the students in the MANSEF study do. The Sun regrets the errors.