Center for autistic students to get new school building

After 57 years of providing special education services for children with autism out of a historic Ellicott City mansion, the Linwood Center is finally getting a real school.

"We have run out of room here," Linwood executive director Bill Moss said about the three-level stone mansion on Martha Bush Drive that was converted into a school in 1955, when Linwood was founded.

Linwood, Moss said, was "among the very first autism specific programs in the world." In addition to its nonpublic school, Linwood Center Inc., a nonprofit organization, offers an employment program and operates 11 group homes throughout Howard County and Catonsville for adults living with autism.

The new two-story school building, about 36,000 square feet in size, is being built on Linwood's current property, adjacent to the mansion. To make room for the new school, an existing modular home, which the center had been using as a residence, will be dismantled this month and donated to Habitat for Humanity.

Linwood's new school is scheduled to open in the fall of 2013, after which the mansion will be restored and used for administrative offices and conferences.

The new building will nearly triple Linwood's capacity, from 24 to 70 students.

"It'll make a big difference in the autism community, particularly in Howard County and surrounding counties," Moss said. "There are no autism specific nonpublic schools close by. Many of the students are being bused out to other schools."

If the Howard County Public School System does not have an appropriate program to serve a student with special needs, it pays for the student to get services. School system spokeswoman Patti Caplan said the system will pay $9.5 million in tuition and $2.9 million in transportation this year for 149 students who receive special education services through nonpublic placements. Some of the cost will be reimbursed by the state, Caplan said.

Of those 149 students, about 50 have some form of autism, Moss told the County Council last week. He said the majority of those students attend the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore or the Forbush School in Hunt Valley, where tuition rates are higher than Linwood.

'Inclusion model'

Linwood currently serves 17 students ages nine to 21, who Moss said are at the more "challenging end of the autism spectrum." Of those students, 15 are provided with residential services in three off-campus group homes and an on-campus dormitory.

With the additional capacity allotted by the new building, Moss said Linwood will be able to take on kindergarten through 12th grade students with less severe forms of autism.

"When we open the new school, we would like to offer Howard County and the surrounding school systems to become part of their inclusion model," he said.

The inclusion model allows students with disabilities to attend public school while also receiving additional educational services, as needed, from non-public schools like Linwood.

"So if a student needs a couple hours of day to be in a highly specialized environment, or if a student needs to be for a couple of months in a nonpublic school … that's the kind of model that we are looking to do," Moss explained.

The new school — which Moss said is being built by David S. Brown Enterprises "just about at cost" — is a $6.4 million project. The majority of the funding is coming from a $3.1 million loan Linwood is taking out.

Another $1.65 million is slated to come from state bonds approved for four straight years by the General Assembly.

State Del. Guy Guzzone, a Columbia Democrat who has taken the lead on securing bond funding for Linwood, said projects, like Linwood, that get bond funding year after year are typically high priorities of the legislature.

"In my opinion, (Linwood) rates right up there," he said. "Helping those with any form of disability to reach their highest potential is I believe chief in what we stand together as government to do."

Howard County government is slated to provide $925,000 for the new school. Moss testified before the County Council last week, requesting they approve the funding when voting on the fiscal 2013 budget.

"It will (be approved)," Ellicott City Democrat Courtney Watson promised.

The remaining funding is slated to come from private donations. Linwood has raised $235,000 and is seeking to raise another $450,000.

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