WHEN FRANCIS Nochera was a sophomore at Washington's Gonzaga High School, he volunteered to work at a summer day camp. And his life changed forever.
He was looking for a summer job when he heard about a new camp for disabled kids in Rockville, under the direction of Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
The camp sounded "like something different to do," Nochera recalls, so he gave it a try and found himself working with a bunch of other high school students - among them Maria Shriver, daughter of the camp's founder.
The experience made such an impression that Nochera gave up earlier dreams of becoming a pilot or civil engineer. He enrolled at Slippery Rock State College in Pennsylvania and earned a bachelor of science degree for his study of mental retardation. Then he earned a master's degree in severe-profound handicaps from the Johns Hopkins University.
As difficult as his majors were, his first teaching job in 1976 wasn't any easier. The job was in the Appalachian region of West Virginia, and he had to recruit his own students.
"They gave me a four-wheel-drive and said, 'Go find them.' I was greeted by shotguns coming into the 'hollers.'" But if his college majors hadn't scared him off, what were a few gun-toting parents? The young teacher ended up with seven pupils that first year.
Known to all by his nickname, Mr. Cisco, he has taught deaf and blind students at the state's Rosewood Center, and children with "all kinds of disabilities" at various Baltimore elementaries.
He has been in the Anne Arundel school system since 1985, teaching in its Early Childhood Intervention program for youngsters ages 3 and 4 who have been identified as lagging in development of verbal skills - first as at Pasadena Elementary and, since 1992, at Benfield.
On the first day of school, halls and classrooms normally vibrate with excited chatter. But not Mr. Cisco's class.
Except for the voices of the teacher and his assistant, Lou Ann Fidler, the classroom is all but silent. When the three3- and four4-year-olds arrive for the first time, they move quietly and tentatively, like butterflies in an unfamiliar garden.
"Most of them come nonverbal," Nochera, 46, says. "I tell their parents they're going to be shocked with the results [of the ECI class]. Our program is very intense; everything we do is geared toward speech."
To qualify for ECI, Nochera says, "the kids go through a whole series of testing by educators, and physical and occupational therapists. By the end of the first year, if we're not getting anywhere, there are other options like sign language or an electronic communication board," similar to a computer keyboard.
"I can count on one hand ECI children I've had with below-normal intelligence," saysNochera, 46 says. "There can be problems with behavior or language. A child may have syndromes like autism or palsy, hearing and visual impairments, but the main question is, 'What does the child require to be successful?'
"My class is self-contained, but we do a lot with others," says Nochera, describing his brightly decorated classroom across the hall from the kindergarten room.
"We do a lot with kindergarten. Each of my students has a fifth- grade buddy who comes twice a week for 15 minutes. It's a win-win thing. My kids love it and the fifth- graders love it."
The older children are trained in special activities designed for children with disabilities.
In addition to his pupils' interacting with others, Nochera keeps things interesting by changing the unit topic every week.
"We have special units, all fun things," he says. "We start with the five senses, then we have cowboys, Indians, dinosaurs. Everything has a speech and language emphasis."
It doesn't get much more interesting than the 30-foot dinosaur or the huge submarine made of cardboard and wood that he and his pupils made last year. Children walking by the ECI room can't resist sticking their heads in to see what's up.
"If it keeps me interested, I know the kids are," headds. Norchera says.
At Benfield, three3-year-olds attend ECI class in the morning, four4-year-olds in the afternoon. By their third yearAfter two years in the ECI program, the children are usually ready for kindergarten. There's a waiting list for ECI classes, which usually have eight to 10 pupils.
What does a man with such a challenging job do for fun? He runs Camp Greentop, a summer program for disabled children and adults in the Catoctin Mountains near Frederick.
The camp starts before school is over, so Nochera commutes for a week or two. Camp lasts until mid- August.
He is joined at Greentop by his wife, Carla Nochera, and their three daughters, Katie, 18, Christina, 14, and Victoria, 9.
Also on the job is the family pooch, Harpo, a llasa apso so named because his coat bore a striking resemblance to the Marx brother's hair when adopted from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Mrs.Carla Nochera is a speech and language specialist at Lake Shore Elementary School.and Child Find.
Francis Nochera also runs a four-day family session that his ECI students from Benfield often attend. "It's a wonderful experience with positive feedback, seeing the kids outside the class setting," he says.
Nochera's first Anne Arundel students are beginning to graduate from high school. At his oldest daughter's graduation from Chesapeake High this year, from Chesapeake High, he says, a former pupil came up to him with tears in her eyes.
The young woman student had just graduated with honors. Nochera says she told him, "I wanted to thank you for what you did for me, Mr. Cisco. Can you believe I'm going to college to major in English?"