Compass Academy to give special needs students direction

When the Norbel School for special needs students closed in June, it left school admissions director Frank Pugliese, like the school's the teachers and staff, unemployed.

But Pugliese, who had been at the school for 15 years, didn't stop working.

In fact, the Catonsville resident said he spent more time working during the ensuing eight weeks to start a new school with several of his colleagues than he ever had in his 18-year teaching career.

The result of all that overtime opened its doors Aug. 29 on Maple Avenue in Halethorpe, the site of the Ascension School that was closed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore last spring.

Like Norbel School, the new Compass Academy teaches children with learning differences, such as Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, autism and Asperger's.

"Normally, it takes two years to get a school up and running," said Pugliese, 38, the acting head of the school. "We had two months."

For Norbel students such as Dillon Plitt, the wait must have felt longer.

"I was devastated (when Norbel closed). I was scared," said Dillon, 16, who spent four years at the school. "I didn't know what school I was going to. I was worried about starting a new school."

On the last Monday in August, the Relay resident started his 11th-grade school year at Compass Academy and, so far, has felt comfortable.

"I like how it's kind of like Norbel, but it's on a smaller scale," said Dillon, who has spina bifida, a birth defect resulting in the incomplete development of the spinal cord. "You don't have to worry about all the stuff that goes on in a bigger school."

Most of the school's 28 students in grades one through 12 come from Howard and Baltimore counties, Pugliese said.

Students must score average or above average on a neuropsychological evaluation, Pugliese said, to gain admission.

"We will be providing them a Maryland state approved individualized education. It's an education they can go to college on," Pugliese said.

"We also teach our kids interpersonal skills, (such as) initiating and maintaining conversations, conflict resolution, acceptance of responsibility and good citizenship," he said.

Teaching these social skills is part of the curriculum and is as important as the academic portion of the school, said teacher Nancy Feldman, an Owings Mills resident.

"I did lunch duty (Sept. 6) and set up a doubles ping pong tournament," said Feldman, who taught at Norbel School for four years. "Math was secondary to those kids jumping, playing and enjoying it."

In the morning of Sept. 7, the school buzzed with activity. One teacher led a group through calisthenics for physical education class. Another had students reciting Spanish. Two other students studied literature under the guidance of their teacher.

With only 28 students, much of the two-story school building that housed Ascension School's 146 students and 16 faculty and staff members remains unused.

Pugliese said filling classrooms that have been vacant since Ascension closed June 8 isn't the goal.

"We would like to stay comfortably between 35 and 40 students for the year," Pugliese said. "We're more interested in doing it right rather than doing it big.

"As it stands at this moment, our budget will be in the black, so we're not pressed for enrollment."

The school's goals, Pugliese said, are to provide more training for the school's teachers and to add technology for the school, which already has a computer lab and SMART Boards.

Tuition for the private school is about $23,000, Pugliese said, about the same as that at Norbel.

Many of the students were at Norbel School as were the half dozen teachers at the school.

Joe Rosalski taught at Norbel for seven years and will teach English and history at Compass Academy.

"The students seem to have fallen right back into a groove rather quickly," Rosalski said. "(Compass) has that same sense of community, even though we're in a totally different community.

"It was like picking up from where we left off at Norbel," said the Perry Hall resident.

Cathy Plitt, Dillon's mother, said she can feel that comfort level.

"I'm really curious to see how the year goes," said Plitt, who noted she had few options after Norbel closed. "You had to know the people, put your eggs in one basket and hope for it. I trust these people and know Frank (Pugliese) loves the kids.

"I can't think (the staff) wouldn't do their darndest."

So far, Plitt said, she has had no problems.

"What I really like is Dillon has three kids in his class," Plitt said. "How much closer to private tutoring can you get to that?"

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