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Norbel parents, staff attempt to launch new school

Religious Education

Norbel School in Elkridge will officially close its doors for good Friday, but a group that includes former Norbel staff and parents are working to launch a similar school for students with learning differences, one that they hope will open in time for the new school year.

It is a daunting task in a short time, and the group, which has held meetings since Norbel officials announced the school's closing, has not secured a facility. The group is working on gaining permission from the state to open a school and is also trying to secure nonprofit status. And it needs financing — one of the issues that Norbel officials say led to the school's demise.

But the group says the school would begin slowly, with at least 26 students and eight full-time and four part-time staff. They have contacted a bank and have drawn up a budget. They have also a list of possible venues, which include the site of Ascension School, a Catholic school in Halethorpe that closed recently.

They hope to be housed in a new building by Aug. 1. They say they want to make certain that parents of Norbel students have an opportunity to place students in a school that offered what Norbel did — individualized education for students with language-based disabilities.

"We are a community and we've pretty much decided as a whole that we are not defined by a building. We are defined by the people in the building," said former Norbel admissions director Frank Pugliese, one of the members of the group leading the efforts to launch the new school.

He spoke of the plan Thursday afternoon, one day after school officials met with parents in a question-and-answer session regarding the school's decision to close.

"Our kids are very unique. They are very bright, but at Norbel, it was for a lot of them the first time they really flourished and formed friendships and seen tremendous academic and social growth," added Pugliese, who said he was not part of the school's decision-making body that chose to close.

Norbel officials announced in a prepared statement this week that the private, nonprofit school that served children in grades one through 12 with learning differences had been forced to close at the conclusion of the academic year "due to years of declining enrollment and crushing debt."

Norbel, which Pugliese said had 81 students when it closed, specialized in small classes and taught such interpersonal skills as conflict resolution and such organizational skills as breaking down sizable projects.

"I'm going to miss seeing discouraged kids come through our doors and a year or two later leave more confident, better able and happy," said Pugliese. He said that the new school would serve not only former Norbel students but "it will be open to students who would have fit the Norbel model in the past."

Kristin Fleckenstein of Pasadena, whose daughter Lucy just completed her first year at Norbel, said that the school was invaluable for highly functioning students who didn't acclimate well to traditional school settings but weren't challenged by many schools for children with disabilities.

"Lucy was in the public school system in Anne Arundel from first to fifth grade, and they did their very best to meet her needs," said Fleckenstein. "However, it was just impossible to do that with the resources they had and the population they had."

Now those who are seeking to launch a new school are benefiting from parents like Fleckenstein, who in the past have explored launching schools to suit their children's needs.

"There is a great deal of interest by parents in the possibility of starting a new school that would take the mission of Norbel and enhance it to reach its full potential," Fleckenstein said.

Meanwhile questions abound in Howard County as to whether the school system, which is currently seeking to build schools in the Elkridge area to address overcrowding, would be interested in the Norbel property, which was once home to Elkridge Elementary School.

Ken Roey, county schools' executive director of facilities planning and management, said he could not comment on whether the school system is interested in the site. He did say, however, that when it was Elkridge Elementary, it was built to specifications that are not consistent with current ones.

"If we were to build a new school today, it would not resemble that school at all," Roey said. "I would imagine, without having seen it, that it would require modifications to even come close to" specifications.

An earlier version of this article misspelled Kristin Fleckenstein's name. The Sun regrets the error.

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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