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News Maryland Howard County Ellicott City

Linwood school for children with autism has new building, staff and attitude

When it opened 58 years ago, the Linwood Center was a groundbreaking school for children with autism, one of very few such schools in the country.

In recent years, however, the Ellicott City school lost some of its luster, as the 200-year-old building aged and other, more modern facilities opened.

But now, the Linwood Center is working to return to the cutting edge of autism treatment with a new $7 million building, new administrators and teachers, and a new diploma-track option for elementary- and middle school-aged children.

The 36,000-square-foot building, funded with a combination of public and private money, is more than twice as large as the former school with space for 70 students, about twice as many as before. It includes state-of-the-art features not found in the old building, including a sensory room, a music room, a quiet room and a training apartment, where students can learn how to live on their own.

"This is a new Linwood," Executive Director Bill Moss said during a recent tour of the school. "It's completely revamped."

The new building opened in late August at the start of the school year. It was dedicated last week at a ceremony attended by scores of parents, donors, Howard County public school officials and county elected officials.

Among the latter was County Executive Ken Ulman, who recalled his first visit to the old Linwood years ago and seeing the "scary-ish" old building.

"I remember asking the question, 'How does this place function?'" Ulman said at the Sept. 18 dedication. "Now, it does."

Autism is a brain disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors, according to Autism Speaks, a leading national science and advocacy organization. Also known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, it is found in about one in 88 children — 10 times the incidence as 40 years ago. That increase is usually credited to better diagnosis and environmental influences.

Linwood opened its doors in 1955 in a three-story former manor house, which now sits a stone's throw from the Howard County District Court Building. It was the vision of the late Jeanne Simons, an educator and therapist who saw the need for a comprehensive autism program at a time when few existed, and when many children with autism were institutionalized.

'Handwriting on the wall'

Linwood won kudos in its early years, and has always been one of the few schools in the state with an on-campus residential program for students with autism. It also is one of the few programs in the state to serve adults as well, with such services as employment help, a community-based residential program and the Linwood Center Boutique in Historic Ellicott City, a jobs and training site for people with autism.

But in many respects, recent times have not been kind to Linwood. The original building was never designed as a school and eventually, age and deterioration forced administrators to close parts of it. Capacity dropped from 35 students to 24.

Meanwhile, the student body declined as other, more modern facilities using the latest techniques were established. In addition, area school systems, which refer students to nonpublic schools like Linwood, grew more adept at accommodating autistic students in their own classrooms.

"We saw the handwriting on the wall," said Moss, who has worked at Linwood since 1975. "Parents didn't want to put their children in an old building like this. It couldn't compete with the type of facility parents wanted, particularly in Howard County. … We still had kids coming here, but it was more and more difficult to meet the needs of the children."

Linwood's struggles were well known in Maryland's autism community.

"Linwood was one of the first (schools for autistic children), but with the growth of so many others, they kind of got outpaced," said Linda Ferrier, the mother of a 21-year-old son with autism and a board member of Pathfinders for Autism, a statewide parent support and services group based in Cockeysville.  "It wasn't that Linwood ever did a poor job, just that there were newer, shinier places."

"Their building was really outdated, they couldn't keep up with the times," agreed Dorie Flynn, executive director of the Maryland Association of Nonpublic Special Education Facilities, an advocacy group for parents, students and schools. "They languished for awhile."

She said Linwood eventually decided "they want to be a premier provider and a sought-after program, really addressing the needs of children with autism. … I have a strong faith that they want to make their program work, and I think they will."

Over the years, Linwood has taken students not just from Howard County but also from neighboring Baltimore, Carroll, Frederick and Montgomery counties.

Still, a bigger and better Linwood is especially encouraging for Howard County school officials, who welcome every available option for educating the county's growing number of autistic children without sending them to another county.

"We're excited," said Patricia Daley, executive director of special education and student services for the Howard County Public School System. "I'm so happy for our staff, and most of all for our students. Now we have another option (for placing county students with autism), and it's close by."

Daley said Linwood administrators worked with school officials for the past three years to help design a state-of-the-art facility, visiting school-run facilities such as the Cedar Lane School, a school for special needs students in Fulton, and consulting with school system experts. "I think they have a great vision for our county," she said.

Daley said the school system educates many children with autism in regular classrooms, and also uses "a handful" of nonpublic schools, like Linwood.

Last year, three county students were enrolled at Linwood. This year, six of the school's 20 students are from Howard County.

'She's very happy here'

The father of one new Linwood student from the county said his child is pleased with her new school. Riaz Ahmad said his 16-year-old daughter Zenab started Linwood this fall after the family moved to Clarksville from Anne Arundel County, where she had attended school for years.

"We were skeptical," he said. "These children don't like change. … But surprisingly, she's very happy here. She comes, she giggles, she enjoys it. Every morning, when we drop her off, she's ready to go. … We're very happy."

Moss said designing the new building and adapting its curriculum involved not only public school officials but also neighbors, parents, advocacy groups, autism experts — all of Linwood's stakeholders and more.

"We stepped aside and looked at where our program was and where we needed to be, and made some fairly significant changes," Moss said. Among those changes are a new principal, new instructional facilitator, new teachers and new state certificate that allows the school to offer a general education program for elementary and middle school student that puts them on track to earn a high school diploma.

Of the $7 million cost, which includes the equipment, the county paid $1.9 million and the state $1.7 million.

The new Linwood is still a work in progress. Only 20 students are enrolled while there is space for 70, and the new building itself is not quite finished. Several classrooms are empty or used for storage, and the school is still using the cafeteria in the old building while the new one is being built.

Still, Linwood administrators have high hopes for their new school, located at 3421 Martha Bush Drive.

New Principal Catherine Perini talked of maintaining Linwood's "history of greatness," and Moss of plans to "create a hub of autism services in this region."

Moss added: "This place has generated amazing interest among the school systems, parents, and advocacy groups."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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