Some special education students at Cockeysville Middle School have made a place in the sun a little brighter for their fellow students. Cleaner and greener, too.
For the past two school years, the youngsters in Pat Barget's class have transformed the school's small courtyard from "a little on the wild side" to a neat, colorful garden spot.
"It looks better now than it has for a number of years," said Cockeysville Assistant Principal Charles F. Patrick.
Caring for the courtyard is part of the students' vocational training and an opportunity to earn community service credit. It's also a way to make their presence felt in the large, rambling school, where the mentally disabled youngsters are relative newcomers.
The courtyard was "messy and overgrown" when his class adopted it, said student Steve Ramsarran. "We pulled weeds, we planted flowers."
Steve and his classmates also painted benches, raked, pruned, swept and even decorated the area for holidays.
With the help of the art department, they put out a big turkey at Thanksgiving, and lights, snowflakes and Frosty the Snowman at Christmastime. Frosty stayed well into the winter, and when spring came he moved along, promising, of course, to be back again someday.
Ms. Barget and the students came to Cockeysville in September 1993 as part of the county's inclusion program for disabled students. Most of the students had been in special education centers.
Ms. Barget said she looked for vocational activities and community service opportunities. "I talked to the principal, and the school just kind of let us ease in and be caretakers."
Then-Principal Julie Szymaszek said, "I welcomed their help with open arms . . . having been someone who went out there and weeded the yard one summer."
The courtyard, one of two remaining from the original building, has windows on three sides and is accessible through a door off one of the main hallways. Through the years, it's been used for warm-weather classes, faculty breakfasts, student picnics and other special events.
And with Sparks Elementary sharing the building since its January fire, kindergartners use the area, too.
"It has always been one of those areas that every faculty member has been well-intentioned to get out there and fix it up. But as with many things, it kept getting lower on everyone's priority list," said Ms. Szymaszek, now director of middle schools for the southeast area.
Spring has brought blooms of tulips and daffodils. And there are geraniums, snapdragons and chrysanthemums on the way. This year, the school built a ramp into the courtyard so students in wheelchairs can use the area.
The next project is to get tall planters, so students in wheelchairs and those with restricted movement can work in the flower beds, too.
These middle schoolers with mental and some physical disabilities stay in one classroom for academic subjects, but join their nondisabled classmates for music, art and physical education.
Their course work includes training to make them more independent. For instance, one day a week they buy groceries and prepare their own lunches. They also walk all over the neighborhood, logging the miles and learning their way around.
Taking care of the courtyard has also helped them be independent in the large school won them praise from classmates, teachers said.
"At the beginning, the whole class went down [to the courtyard] and the whole class came back," said special education coordinator Rosanna Hisley. Now, two students are only too happy to show off the courtyard, talk about the work they've done there and return to their classroom.
And the class has received many written thank-yous from other students for reclaiming the courtyard.
"I think [my students] have learned a lot about responsibility. They have learned to cooperate with each other," Ms. Barget said.
And, "it's fun outside," said Caroline Oberle. For Michele Bush, the gardening "makes me feel great."