Shock lingers from debate

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Waterloo Elementary School won't forget the school redistricting battle of 1995 anytime soon.

Three weeks ago, the Howard County school board rejected a plan to reduce the size of Waterloo's program for students classified as seriously emotionally disturbed by placing half of the pupils in a nearby elementary school.

Today, Waterloo parents, teachers, administrators and even national special education experts still are shocked and disappointed at how the debate distorted the program and its students.

"People were talking about declining property values if the program was moved to their school. Give me a break," said Peter Leone, an associate professor in the University of Maryland's department of special education and director of its Center for the Study of Troubling Behavior. "This monolithic notion about these kids and who they are didn't -- and doesn't -- speak well for the county."

The debate about Waterloo's special education program began in June, when parents at the school off Route 108, upset that the program had grown in a year from its typical 20 or so students to 34, asked school officials to create a second site for the program.

When officials selected Stevens Forest Elementary School in Oakland Mills in January, parents and teachers there immediately protested.

Most argued that their school building did not have the appropriate enclosed space to educate the students and that there was too little time for sufficient staff training, the two reasons cited by school board members when they rejected the proposal.

The Stevens Forest parents and teachers also said the school already was struggling to raise its achievement record and that the turnover rate among its administrators in the past few years had been high.

But some Stevens Forest parents also recounted horror stories that they had heard of out-of-control students frequently disrupting general education classes. Those stories are distorted remnants of a time when the program was overpopulated and understaffed, school officials and Waterloo parents said.

Now, school officials and special education experts praise both Waterloo and the efforts of its principal, Karen Moore-Roby.

The school's program for the seriously emotionally disturbed is considered a state model of how to educate emotionally troubled students whose classroom behavioral problems range from cursing to hitting classmates to depression.

"The children are here because they have acted out in some way inappropriately, or sometimes because they are depressed and won't do their work," said Ms. Moore-Roby. "No two students in the program have exactly the same problem."

In the 1990-1991 school year, the year before Ms. Moore-Roby came to Waterloo, the school handed out 60 suspensions, all but one of which involved nine students in the program. From 1992-1993 to this school year, one student has been suspended each year, she said.

Road to improvement

"The program used to tax the administration because there were so many students and so few staff members," said Diane Robertson, a member of Waterloo's PTA board and school-based management team. "It's not a problem now. These students are a part of the Waterloo community."

The simplest explanation for Waterloo's recent success appears be a combination of fewer students, more staff members and better on-the-job teacher training, a prescription recommended by national special education experts such as Lyndal M. Bullock of the University of North Texas.

"The younger kids really need to be in a structured environment with a tremendous amount of support systems in place. Those really are the prime ingredients," said Dr. Bullock, a professor in North Texas' department of technology and cognition. "You also need a staff really committed to making it work, both in special education and general education."

Improvements in the Waterloo program didn't come without some bumps.

As recently as last spring, Water loo parents complained that the program's size had grown too large for the staff to handle, even with the addition of a full-time psychologist, a crisis counselor and a guidance counselor.

This year, perhaps for the first time, parents of general education students say they are happy with the program. Its size has dropped to 19 students, in part because, as the school system seeks to put special education students into regular classrooms, more neighborhood and regional schools are keeping students who might have been sent to Waterloo.

But with the school system's enrollment expected to rise 30 percent in the next decade, school officials expect the number of children who need a structured, focused program such as Waterloo's to grow.

A recent tour of Waterloo's program for the seriously emotionally disturbed reveals small numbers of students in self-contained rooms receiving directed, close attention from their teachers. The walls and desktops are covered with reminders about how the students should behave, such as sharing and good sportsmanship.

Emphasis is placed on positive reinforcement, with students receiving points for good behavior every 30 minutes. Consistently good behavior is rewarded with additional time in Waterloo's regular classrooms, the ultimate goal being to let the students prove they can leave Waterloo's structured program and return to their neighborhood schools.

"Of course, the children sometimes have a bad day and 'lose it,' but that's why we have a timeout room with a trained adult to talk through what went wrong and how to prevent it from happening the next time," Ms. Moore-Roby said.

In Waterloo's regular classes, observers can't pick out which students are in the program for the disturbed program and which aren't, school officials said.

"The students all know each other and get along well. They're friends," said Lorraine Beri, a fifth-grade teacher at Waterloo. "They care about each other."

Given the program's success and the parental support it has achieved at Waterloo, school officials said, they did not expect such resistance to their initial proposal to send half of the students to Stevens Forest.

"I was surprised," said Sandra Marx, the school system's head of special education. "I'm sure some of it came from that [seriously emotionally disturbed] label. Parents hear it, and it conjures up images that just aren't true."

Although some parents of Waterloo's regular students say they intend to put behind them the dispute over the special education students, parents of the special education students remain wary of the attention. They declined to be interviewed for this article.

The debate over where to educate students labeled seriously emotionally disturbed is certain to emerge again.

'Educate the parents'

Last month's school board decision calls for the installation of a new program for seriously emotionally disturbed children at Fulton Elementary School, which is scheduled to open in 1997. And a tentative redistricting plan for the 1996-1997 school year calls for the middle school version of the same program -- now at Ellicott Mills Middle School -- to be expanded to an another, undetermined county middle school.

"Part of what we're going to have to do is better educate the parents," Ms. Marx said. "We need to make people better aware of who these students are and how successful this program can be to help them to change their behavior."

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