Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick stood before the Howard County delegation yesterday in Annapolis and announced plans to rebuild Cedar Lane school in Columbia as a state - and potentially national - model for serving severely disabled students.
It was an abrupt about-face from signals her staff had been giving county educators.
Until yesterday, the understood command had been to explore dismantling the much-loved and physically inadequate facility, which educates 115 extremely disabled children and young adults ages 3 to 21, and distribute its students among neighborhood schools.
But parent and politician protests prompted the state to take another look at Cedar Lane.
"Today won't be boring, I can guarantee it," Grasmick said just before the early-morning meeting, during which she unveiled the ambitious design plans to the local legislators and parents packing the room.
The sketch suggests rebuilding Cedar Lane as a single-story addition on Lime Kiln Middle School in Fulton in an area now used for two softball fields.
What makes the idea so revolutionary, Grasmick said, is that it is on a campus with an elementary, middle and high school, allowing these medically fragile students access to the general education population.
"We recognize the children [taught] at Cedar Lane have very significant needs," she said. "The benefit of this arrangement is that it maintains the level of services provided, but it also offers reciprocity" in the form of interaction with nondisabled children, which will help prepare both groups for life in the larger world.
Maryland has been repeatedly cited at the federal level for noncompliance with disability education laws requiring children to be schooled in the least restrictive environment their abilities allow - often in classes with nondisabled students. Funding could be withheld if the state doesn't clean up its act.
"We're very conscious of that," said Grasmick, who was a principal at a special-education school in the 1970s.
"But that is balanced by a philosophy that we need a continuum of services for children with special needs" she said. "Cedar Lane in its current form represents the deep end of that system."
Cedar Lane's student body has a range of severe physical and neurological maladies. Some suffer multiple seizures, or require feeding tubes. They have complicated medical needs, and require a well-trained nursing and teaching staff - and a facility built to accommodate their needs. The current 32-year-old one wasn't.
Move toward inclusion
The school had been given a preliminary renovation promise in 1999. But when it became clear last year that a new facility was needed instead, the promise was rescinded.
"There was a change in philosophy at the federal level" by then, Grasmick said: School systems were "to move more in the direction of inclusion" in schools for all children, and away from separate facilities.
State educators took that to mean there would be no more Cedar Lanes. This latest news has thrilled some parents, who were gearing up for a battle.
"I'm very optimistic the best solution has been worked out," said Michael Joyce, whose 18-year-old son, Ian, has Batten disease and attends Cedar Lane. Ian's twin, Joey, died in 2000 from complications of the disease.
"It's something we've wanted all along. It's a win, win, win," Joyce said.
But not everybody is thrilled.
Other parents of disabled children who have been fighting to get them into neighborhood schools, see this as a setback.
"I'm extremely disappointed by this," said Denise Marshall, director of information for the national group TASH (formerly the Association for the Severely Handicapped). "The trend in the country calls for the cessation of capital funding for and building of separate facilities. This will not be considered a model program."
Such comments make Joyce bristle. "How dare they tell me where I can send my kid?" he asked. "They don't know Ian, they don't know what he needs."
Inclusionists and separate-facility promoters are often pitted against one another.
"We don't want to start a war," Joyce said. "We don't want to be known as the Cedar Lane parents and the inclusionist parents. We want to be known as special-education parents."
Joyce said greater inclusion is a necessary option for many less disabled than his son - about 98 percent of the county's 5,005 special-needs students - and he suggests using the Cedar Lane staff and facility as a training ground for all county teachers.
But strong advocates for such integration say all children, even Joyce's, need to be included.
"It's about segregation; it's a civil rights issue," said Jessica Pearsall, who has three children with mental or physical disabilities and worries that inclusion will suffer if separate facilities continue to exist.
But Bob Seipel calls that word inflammatory.
"Segregation implies you take equal people and for some discriminatory reason, you take them aside and segregate them off," said Seipel, whose brain-damaged 4-year-old son, William, attends Cedar Lane. "That doesn't apply to our kids. Our kids are different. I went to Cornell. That's like saying Cornell segregates against people with low SAT scores."
Last fall, a U.S. District Court judge overturned a decree in Los Angeles requiring 16 special-needs schools to give up a majority of their populations to regular schools.
The Cedar Lane parents say they hope the decision illustrates another turning of the tide, one that allows for their children's particular needs.
Decisions such as these are being made across the county and state, said Yale Stenzler, the newly retired executive director of the state's school construction committee, who was at the meeting to help deliver the plan's working details.
Montgomery County recently turned a special-needs school into an addition on a new elementary, and plans for more inclusion and compromise are under way in areas throughout the Baltimore region.
The Howard County fix is still highly speculative, though.
Stenzler said studies will have to be done to determine the enrollment needs of the facility, whether the site is adequate and if land-usage questions can be answered before any funding can come forth. At the earliest, a design stage could start in mid-June, followed by construction in spring next year, with an opening date of August 2005.
"There's no guarantee of funding," Stenzler cautioned, adding that the county would have to apply next year.
"We're confident we can answer any questions," said John R. O'Rourke, Howard's superintendent. "We will put this on a fast track."