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Serving All Means Not Pleasing All


One of the wonderful things about the public school system is that it rarely turns away a child.

Unlike private institutions, which can expel a student for falling below certain standards for academics and behavior, the public schools have a take-all approach. The result is a true reflection of American ideals about inclusion and opportunity.

But that same quality is also what makes the public school system so frustrating at times.

So many personalities, so many ideas, so many styles -- all crammed together in a volatile mix of competing needs. In their attempt to be all-pleasing, the public schools invariably cannot please everybody, and yet they do a noble job of trying.

If ever a situation exemplified the public schools' penchant for striving in the face of imperfection, it is the one at Stevens Forest Elementary in Columbia, where parents are concerned about the system's plan to transfer 10 or more emotionally disturbed children to the school next year.

Their opposition to the proposed transfer centers on fears about disruptive behavior from the transferred students and the way school test scores are likely to be skewed once the students arrive.

Those are the same concerns held by parents at the school the children currently attend, and prompted officials to consider the change in the first place.

For 20 years, Waterloo Elementary has been the school where Howard County officials have assigned the system's most seriously emotionally disturbed students -- children whose behavioral problems sometimes result in emotional outbursts, even violence.

Just a year ago, about 40 such students attended Waterloo. School officials conceded that the demands of the program unfairly burdened that facility.

In a change that began this year, officials have been whittling away at Waterloo's enrollment, keeping more emotionally disturbed children in their home schools. Next year, the plan is to split the remaining group of students between Waterloo and Stevens Forest, with about 10 at each school.

The situation puts administrators between a rock and a hard place, having promised Waterloo parents some relief and having to cope with some unwilling hosts at Stevens Forest.

The Stevens Forest parents have good reason to question the school system's move. As important as it is for the system to meet the needs of its emotionally disturbed students, concentrating those children in one or two facilities creates a hardship. Disruptions and even worse can occur.

A better approach would be to fully implement the plan in effect this year. In other words, keep all emotionally disturbed children at their home schools to ensure a more equitable distribution of the problem.

To do that, however, would require a massive infusion of resources and staff to do what relatively few can accommodate at one or two locations.

Moreover, providing the resources system-wide would not only be costly, it would take years to achieve, if ever. Also, few county schools are equipped with the enclosed classrooms needed for emotionally disturbed students.

Stevens Forest and Waterloo are two of only three schools in the system that have such available space.

With such limited options, school officials are pursuing the right plan.

But they still need to assure parents at both schools that they will have adequate staff and resources. Beyond that, there is not much that can be done to please everyone.

There is no right or wrong in this instance, only competing needs clashing over a problem for which there is no magic solution.

All that can be done is what school officials have proposed; that is, to begin taking incremental steps toward doing what is best for all children.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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