Every morning when Catherine Perini gets into her Ford Focus hatchback, she's always in a rush — not because she's running late, but because she cannot wait to get to work.
Perini is the new principal at the Linwood Center in Ellicott City, a nonprofit based out of a historic mansion off Martha Bush Drive that has provided special education services for children with autism since 1955.
"There's so much going on, so much to do," said Perini, who took over at the end of May. "I love it, and I can't wait to get into my car in the mornings. If I get here early enough and get things on my to-do list crossed off, the more time I get to spend in the classroom with the kids."
Perini, 43, of Towson, has often gone on field trips with the students during the summer session. They go swimming, bowling, roller skating, and Perini is there for all of it, as she will be when school starts Monday, Aug. 26.
"I like to learn with them," she said. "If I'm not with them, I'm out of the loop and I don't understand what they need. I want to be seen, I want them to know me and talk to me."
Perini is coming on board at a turning point in Linwood's history. The center is about to be approved by the Maryland State Department of Education for a general education program for students from kindergarten through eighth grade, as well as its special education programs for students ages 5 to 21. Work is also nearly completed on the center's new school — a two-story, 36,000 square-feet building adjacent to the historic manor that has space for 70 students.
Linwood currently serves about 16 students, said Executive Director Bill Moss, but that number will go up as the new building and program open up. A grand opening for the new facility is set for Sept. 18, but the new program will go into effect on the first day of school as will a soft opening of the building.
"Up to this point we've been a strictly special education, non-graded program," Moss said. "The students would come in on a certificate-bound track, so when they age out of the system they wouldn't get a diploma but a certificate of completion. With this new approval, we'll also be able to accept (special education) diploma-bound students in elementary and middle school, and eventually we'll apply to have a diploma-bound program for high school."
It's an exciting time for the school and for Perini, and she said she's honored to have been brought on board.
"They were looking for someone fresh for a fresh administrative team, with innovative and progressive ideas in terms of the academics," she said. "(In behavioral education), they are sound. They are firm. They know autism and they've known autism since 1955. They get it. They've run a program that works so well for the children, especially those with severe behavioral issues. We can help the students accomplish and conquer so much. But the rigor in the academic piece was lacking, so as we're turning the corner we want to bridge that gap. That's where I come in."
Perini spent the last two years as principal at the Abu Dhabi International School, where she traveled frequently to give professional development workshops on classroom engagement and differentiated instruction. Prior to that, she was a special education teacher in public and private schools in Baltimore County and Baltimore City. A native of Harford County, Perini has a bachelors in communications from Towson State University, a masters in special education from Goucher College and is working toward another masters in educational administrative leadership at Towson.
Perini said her biggest goal was to work with the teachers in implementing the new Common Core Curriculum standards.
"We can utilize this academically, understanding how to use it to teach these functional life skills that the kids at our school really need," she said. "I want to provide the teachers with the resources they need so they can create connections and new understandings (in their work), and provide them with an opportunity to create new learning opportunities for the students."
Moss said when the administration and Board of Directors began discussing the new building and new programming about two years ago, they "wanted to do it hand-in-hand."
Several administrative changes occurred with that hand-in-hand change. Perini is now at the helm of a children's services administrative team that includes a speech pathologist, behavioral specialist, instructional facilitator and curriculum and assessment coordinator. Some of those positions are new, and the work being done by the team "will create an environment that focuses on appropriate behavior and communication skills with strong academics," Perini said.
Moss said Perini fits right into that vision, thanks to her special education expertise and her "contagious energy.
"We conceptualized two major changes: a new building and a new program, and who could lead that program the building allows," Moss said. "Catherine brings an energy and a skill set that will put us in line with some of the best educational systems in the state."