William S. Baer School in West Baltimore is designed to serve children with severe physical and mental disabilities. Children with cerebral palsy, heart defects or terminal cancer. Children who cannot walk, and some who cannot hear or speak.
But for the past few years, more and more children without disabilities have been seeking to enroll at Baer.
They arrive from all over the city to take part in a program that puts an unusual twist on "inclusion," the widespread practice of educating disabled students in a mainstream setting.
At Baer, it's nondisabled children who are integrated into a special education environment. And some teachers and parents contend that those students benefit as much from the interaction as their disabled peers do.
"They learn that everybody has things they're good at and things they're not good at," teacher Barbara Mason said of her nondisabled pupils. "They're not going to be quick to judge or ignore."
The school enrolls about 60 nondisabled children ages 3 to 5 in mixed preschool and kindergarten classes. Such children make up about a quarter of the school's 230 students, who range in age from 3 to 21.
On a recent morning, a group of 5-year-olds traveled from Mason's kindergarten class to a bathroom across the hallway, forming a tight cluster that moved slowly across the waxed floor.
Joy Gordon, who has cerebral palsy, inched forward with the help of a lightweight metal walker. Shiree Steward and Jamiah Fields, who are not disabled, hovered at her side. They occasionally bent down to adjust the walker or propped Joy up when she slumped.
Desiree Steward said her daughter has learned to be compassionate and reach out to children who are different from her.
"I think it's going to take her throughout her life," Steward said, adding that she wished Shiree could stay at Baer beyond kindergarten. The school lacks the space to expand the nondisabled program to other grades.
From a small venture that involved a few teachers' nondisabled children, the inclusion program has grown in the past five years to include neighborhood children, school bus drivers' children and the children of faculty members at neighboring Coppin State University.
Parents of nondisabled pupils are attracted to the school, which sits atop a grassy hill in Coppin Heights, by its cheerful atmosphere, well-trained teachers and small classes.
The ratio at Baer is about one adult to every two students, unheard of in regular public schools. The school was spared from major funding cuts last winter, when budget problems ravaged the city school system.
Some advocates for special-needs students say inclusion is supposed to happen the other way around.
The goal, they say, should be to serve disabled students in regular schools as often as possible.
"I'm not a big fan of 'reverse inclusion,'" said Leslie Seid Margolis, an attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center, who had not seen Baer's program firsthand. "The idea is to have [disabled] kids in their neighborhood schools with the kids who are on their street and in the corner store, kids who aren't strangers to them."
Shari Huene-Johnson, Baer's principal, said many of her students are too medically fragile to attend neighborhood schools. Some require feeding tubes, oxygen tanks or round-the-clock nursing care.
"A lot of our kids will never have the opportunity of being in an inclusive program if they don't have it here," Johnson said.
Schools in the Baltimore region have found different ways to broaden the educational experience of disabled students. Cedar Lane School in Columbia, which serves students with severe disabilities, is moving into a building adjoining a regular school so that its students can have more contact with nondisabled youngsters.
Baer's approach is unconventional but a step in the right direction, said Art Shapiro, a special education professor at Kean University in New Jersey and author of Everybody Belongs: Changing Negative Attitudes Toward Classmates With Disabilities.
"If you want [disabled children] to live quote-unquote 'normal lives,' they have to be around 'normal' people," Shapiro said.
Baer parent Sharone Davis said her daughter, Charnique McLain, who has cerebral palsy and developmental delays, pushes herself harder because she is around nondisabled pupils.
"It motivates her to do what they're doing," she said. "I think it speeds her up."
Although school officials have not conducted a formal study of how nondisabled students fare after they leave Baer, anecdotal evidence has been positive.
The main office keeps a file containing notes of praise written by teachers from pupils' new schools. Johnson remembers one teacher who wrote: "Your child is kind and sensitive to the other children, [academically] ahead of other children."
Teachers at Baer say it's common to see nondisabled students taking care of their disabled classmates. Three-year-olds reach out to steady a boy who can't keep his balance. Kindergartners remember to include a classmate who uses in wheelchair in their activities.
Then, there are those times when disabled and nondisabled children quarrel or get into mischief together.
"What it is, is a kindergarten classroom," Mason said of her class. "It's just as happy and active as any class you would find in the city."
For some parents unfamiliar with the disabled, the idea of voluntarily putting one's child into a special education class might seem contrary to common sense.
Rodney Moore said he was skeptical when his wife suggested enrolling Marcus, the couple's bright and active 3-year-old son, at Baer. "I had a little trepidation [about] him going there," said Moore, whose wife is a school system employee. "I didn't understand how it would benefit him."
But after several school visits, the father changed his mind.
"What I've found is he enjoys the school and he's learning," Moore said. "It's like going to school with someone of a different race. I think everyone should have that experience."
Sun staff writer Hanah Cho contributed to this article.