The setting made for an ideal before-and-after illustration.
On the left was an aging, rustic and weathered building that once housed Linwood School, an Ellicott City facility providing programs and services for students with autism and related disabilities.
A few yards to the right stood the new Linwood School, a bright-red and concrete-gray two-story building that opened at the start of the school year.
On Wednesday, Linwood officials and Howard County public and community leaders assembled between the two, many saying the new facility's dedication illustrates the county's improved services to children with autism.
Officials noted that often, when a public school system cannot provide adequate resources for people with autism, students are sent to other facilities, sometimes out of the area and even out of state.
Linwood officials said their facility is one of three in the state providing comprehensive services for people with autism, and its new building with enhanced services means parents can seek resources from a school that's close to home.
The 36,000-square-foot private facility has a capacity of 70 students. The school offers a nongraded special-education program for ages 5-21 and a general education program for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, school officials said.
The school is part of the larger Linwood Center, founded in 1955 by therapist Jeanne Simon to help children who, school officials said, would otherwise likely have been institutionalized.
Executive Director Bill Moss said the project cost about $7 million, with Howard County government contributing about $1.9 million and the state granting about $1.65 million. The rest came from private donors and bank financing.
Moss said the school currently has an enrollment of about 20 students. The new facility, which also greeted a new principal this year, Catherine Perini, features such tools as multi-touch smart boards in each classroom, a music room with brand-new equipment and a sensory integration room.
"Individuals with autism have issues with making sense of the world," Moss said. "They often are unable to distinguish what's relevant and what's noise, and the sensory integration room has equipment that our occupational therapists can use to help the students sort through their issues."
Community leaders and parents were among dozens who toured of the facility Wednesday. Those accustomed to the older facility expressed their appreciation for the new school.
"It's night and day. You can see the age of the house next door," said Mark Spitale of New Market, whose 14-year-old son Joseph is enrolled at Linwood after moving from a public school in Frederick County. "This is pretty much state of the art. For special-needs autistic kids, it's a hard fit in public school, but he seems to be doing very well here."
Howard County school board member Ellen Flynn Giles said the school system and Linwood officials will be able to collaborate on services at the new facility.
"Our teachers will be able to provide some professional development," Giles said. "We'll get benefits from experts that are here and there will be services for parents to help them understand how they can best support their children to be successful."
"Our students are placed here, and we pay for those services to be delivered as part of the obligation to provide students with free public education," Giles added. "When services were limited to what [the old] building could provide … we had to send them farther afield to another facility, and in some cases even out of state."
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman called the Linwood project "one of the most important that I have had an opportunity to be involved in" during his seven years in office.
"Despite the fabulous work of the public school system, there are some students who need that private placement, and we did not have the facility in Howard County that could truly accommodate those students until now," Ulman said.
"Imagine a child on a bus to Pennsylvania every day. That's a tough challenge for that student and those parents every day," Ulman said. "Having the facility to work with that child and to better coordinate the educational experience with the public school system is what we've been looking for."
Moss said the adjacent building, called Manor House, is slated to be restored — but he added there are no plans for its use as yet. State Sen. Jim Robey, who attended Wednesday's dedication, offered a satirical suggestion.
"With the Halloween season coming up," Robey said, "I think we can make a few bucks."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun