Although it was early morning, an unmistakable pained weariness had already settled on Dale Wells' face.
He was talking about his son, Chad, and was, as usual, racked with worry and frustration.
Chad will soon be a senior in the Howard County Extension Program -- an arm of the public school system set up for students with severe emotional disabilities. It is a program the elder Wells desperately hopes will help prepare his son for independence when he graduates in a year.
That may still happen, but now it will involve a lengthy bus ride every day because Howard school officials have decided to send Chad and some 30 other extension students to an out-of-county school after a lease on an Ellicott City facility expired.
Although school officials and others defend the move as temporary and hardly unusual, Wells and other parents are infuriated, claiming they were told too little, too late about a change that will send their children along three freeways to a facility near Randallstown in Baltimore County. School officials have yet to estimate the time it will take to bus the students there.
"It's the distance that's the problem," Wells said.
The Ellicott City computer programmer noted that he is often called to his son's school two to three times a week for emergency intervention.
"You have no idea how horrible this is I have one more year to get through to Chad, to do everything I can to make sure he's OK before he walks out my door and leaves home for good. How can I do it from that distance?" he asked.
Said Chad Wells: "It's ridiculous. I'm probably going to be on the bus for like an hour. I like my school now. I can walk there. It's like going to a regular school."
Some are questioning whether officials really want to provide adequate care for students who can be difficult to control and educate.
"These kids are disruptive and no one wants to deal with them," said Wells.
According to Ronald Caplan, a special education coordinator for Howard schools, more than 80 Howard County students attended nonpublic schools outside the county this year. Caplan said those schools provided the most appropriate instruction for those students.
That number includes 12 at Strawbridge School, the campus the extension students will attend in the fall, he said.
"It is not unusual to send youngsters to where the school programs are," he said.
Indeed, officials at Strawbridge say that students from as far away as the Eastern Shore and Cecil County attend programs there. Those who handle such placements at other school systems in the Baltimore region attest that such moves are common.
"Anytime you change," Caplan said, "you're not going to be able to satisfy everyone."
About 30 students attend the extension program in leased space at Taylor Manor, a psychiatric facility for troubled teen-agers in Ellicott City. Howard County schools have leased three floors in a building there for about 10 years, Caplan said.
Few dispute that the buildings are aged: Taylor Manor dates to 1909, and the family-care facility that houses the extension program was built in 1939, said Nel Kirshner, director of adolescent services at Taylor Manor.
"The place is horrendous," said one parent, Jean Chinni, whose son has attended the extension program for two years and who echoes the sentiments of many.
Taylor Manor officials decided not to renew the school's lease because of increasing space constraints, Kirshner said.
The Howard school board approved the plan to bus the students in February. At Strawbridge, they will find a sparkling 4-year-old facility in a quiet residential area near Randallstown.
School officials had quietly made arrangements with Strawbridge last winter. Parents were not told about such a possibility until the deal was signed. Some, including Wells, learned that their children were to be moved when they read about it in the paper.
"It was really a stealth decision by the school board," Wells said. "The parents had no idea and we're stunned.
"The bottom line is they really forgot to plan for these kids and they had to send them out of the county," he said.
Said Gail Fournier, whose son, Daniel, has been enrolled in the extension program for two years, "It's only 30 students. How much heat can you get for displacing only 30 students?
"I see a lot of problems next year -- a lot, a lot," she said. "I just want to get him through the year."
Served on committee
For some parents, the decision to move students to Strawbridge was especially startling because they had served with school officials on a committee planning a permanent facility for the extension students.
Caplan said financial and other considerations eliminated the most-discussed option -- remodeling and expansion of the Gateway School campus.
"We were pretty far down the road with that [Gateway plan] before Strawbridge came about," he said.
Caplan said the Strawbridge plan "did come up rather quickly. It wasn't like there was this plan parents weren't told about," he said. Caplan added that the committee is still working and hopes to have a plan for a permanent facility for the next budget.
The bus ride to Strawbridge is the primary concern of many. Though students will be supervised by trained bus drivers and an aide, some parents fear what will happen when students with problems such as bipolar disorder who are prone to act out violently are confined to a bus for what could be hours a day.
Details of the program at Strawbridge will be worked out this summer, said Sandy Fishbein, clinical coordinator of psychology for the extension program. Students' therapists will move to Strawbridge, but the instructors will change. "The program is largely unformed," he said.
Caplan said the bus ride "is longer, but not that much longer. We try to minimize the distance and maximize the educational opportunities."
An official at Strawbridge said that sometimes being farther from home can help such students.
"We had a referral from a student who had been put out of a program and sent here," said Brenda Bridge of Strawbridge. "Was the student difficult to work with? No. But he lived down the street from the [other] school so when he got angry he just picked up his backpack and walked home. So for many kids it's a great advantage for them to have the distance," she said.
Pub Date: 6/24/98