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Nonpublic special education school graduates outpace their peers in public settings

While most children see dream jobs, spouses and freedom in their futures, Brian Bailey saw only death. The autistic boy, who stopped speaking at 18 months, grew up with anxiety about getting older, and his rocky educational track record early on didn't allay his fears.

"I was obsessing from the beginning about his future, asking 'What am I going to do?' " said his mother, Jennell Bailey, as she recalled his one week in a Baltimore public school general-education classroom, where she said he wasn't flourishing.

But in 2014 when Brian Bailey graduates from the St. Elizabeth School in Baltimore — a nonpublic institution that is part of a group called the Maryland Association of Nonpublic Special Education Facilities — he will be eagerly anticipating the next stage of his life.

MANSEF, which is made up of schools that take in special-education students who are referred from public schools that can't meet their needs, recently commissioned a report that showed that their post-graduation results outpace national outcomes for students with disabilities who receive services in public schools.

The study found that students with disabilities who graduate from MANSEF's nonpublic schools are more likely than their public school classmates to be employed, enrolled in a post-secondary school and living independently and are less likely to have been exposed to the juvenile justice system.

"It was critical for us to know and validate the heroic efforts of the staff working in our schools, and really make sure that the education we provide is really top-notch," said Dorie Flynn, executive director of MANSEF.

Flynn said that while the system's nonpublic schools follow the state's curriculum and are subjected to intensive annual evaluations and regulations by the state Department of Education, the organization wanted a snapshot of its results.

"It's really important to do outcome studies," Flynn said. "You don't want to do something if it's fruitless."

The research was compiled by Deborah Carran, a researcher and professor at the Johns Hopkins University, who called the results encouraging.

The MANSEF graduates were compared to results found in a study done by the U.S. Department of Education called the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2, which tracks a sample population of special-needs students who receive services in public schools as they transition to adulthood. The MANSEF study represented students from 18 nonpublic institutions two years after they graduated in 2007 and 2008.

Carran said the longitudinal study, which served as a model for the MANSEF study, was the most comparable data available, though students in the MANSEF study often have more severe disabilities.

"It demonstrates that these students, with the proper supports in place, they can go on to be very engaged in their community, in the world," Carran said. "I was surprised at how engaged they were, how many were out there doing something."

For example, the percentage of students who graduated from MANSEF schools and were employed within one year was 53 percent compared to 27 percent nationally.

The number enrolled in a four-year college was 11 percent, compared to 4 percent in the national sample; about 74 percent of MANSEF special-education students were living at home after one year, while 84 percent were nationally.

And about 16 percent in MANSEF schools had been involved in the criminal justice system, while 58 percent in the national study were.

An original MANSEF school, St. Elizabeth is one of 93 programs in Maryland that serve students in a setting that is small, well equipped and heavily staffed.

"We are able to collaborate and individualize to an intense degree," said Lori Revitz, clinical coordinator at St. Elizabeth. "Because we understand them so well, we can help them understand themselves."

The debate around inclusive settings, in which special-education students are in general-education classrooms rather than being segregated, continues to be contentious. But parents and educators at St. Elizabeth — which has extracurricular activities like proms, sports teams and a student council, and where students have jobs and can even take college courses — say that young disabled adults are in a setting where they can flourish.

"The truth is [there is more] normalization here than in inclusion," said Joshua Gervais, transition coordinator for St. Elizabeth. "One of the biggest things that holds students back is socialization. Here, they're good enough."

For Mary Lee Richardson, that was key to choosing St. Elizabeth for her 16-year-old, autistic son, who was struggling in a Baltimore County high school. Soon after starting school, he fought going every day because few knew his name, let alone his frustrations.

"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

twitter.com/EricaLG

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.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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