Cedar Lane School Principal Nicholas Girardi wanted to be a football coach. And when he went to Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, the former Pennsylvania All-State football player pursued an education degree so he could teach and coach at the high school level.
But visiting an institution for severely disabled children, one of the requirements for his degree, changed Girardi's life.
Girardi saw neglected youngsters. "Flies flying around them, no one paying any attention to them," he said. "It was an earth-shaking experience for me. It changed my whole outlook on what it was I wanted to do in my life."
He changed his major to special education.
After serving in the field for more than 40 years, Girardi will retire in two weeks after spending the past 22 years as principal of Cedar Lane, a school for the county's most cognitively and physically challenged children.
"Mr. Girardi has always had the respect for children, and his philosophy is that kids come first," said Ellen Roper, a career-skills lab teacher and 22-year veteran at Cedar Lane. Putting children first "came over to us," on the school's staff, she said. "Through him [Girardi] ... we have that type of philosophy, too."
There were 220 students when Girardi came to Cedar Lane in 1985. He was a veteran teacher and principal for children with disabilities in Prince George's County, serving there for 19 years. But he wanted to work in the community where he lived, Howard County.
When he arrived, Girardi said, "there were students at Cedar Lane who had moderate disabilities, who did not need to be in a segregated placement. What we worked on and what we accomplished was reducing that number by starting regional programs" at schools such as Oakland Mills High, Oakland Mills Middle, Harper's Choice Middle, and Swansfield Elementary.
Girardi said the goal was "putting students into less restrictive environments because that's where they needed to be ... with nondisabled peers." Soon, the population at Cedar Lane was closer to its current level of about 100 children, ages 3 to 21.
Because the original Cedar Lane School in Columbia was not designed for severely disabled children, a new facility was opened two years ago in Fulton. Girardi played an active role in designing the new school, which includes a therapeutic pool, greenhouse, wheelchair-accessible bathrooms and wide halls that can accommodate students' equipment.
Patty Daley, the school system's coordinator of special education, said Girardi "was key in providing the vision for what that state-of-the-art facility would look like, but he also took the whole philosophy of Cedar Lane" to the new facility.
"He's always had vision since he began in the profession. He's been good for students, and he's been good for parents," Daley said.
The new Cedar Lane shares a campus with Fulton Elementary, Lime Kiln Middle and Reservoir High schools. A variety of programs - art and music classes, buddy systems, shared lunches and assemblies - give disabled youngsters an opportunity to interact with their nondisabled peers. These programs and the location of the school reflect Girardi's philosophy as a special educator - to make his students a part of the community at large.
Brenda Thomas, Lime Kiln's principal, said Girardi is "very committed to his students, and he has a very open attitude about finding ways that we can collaborate. ... We do work with such different students, but we really want them to have the opportunity to work together."
Thomas said that Girardi "doesn't just see himself as a principal for special-needs students," but educates all children.
Columbia resident Amanda Cheong's daughter is one of Girardi's students. Kristin, 18, began attending Cedar Lane as a preschooler. She uses a wheelchair and communicates through assistive technology. Kristin stayed at Cedar Lane until 2003, when medical complications made her unable to be at school.
When Kristin began school, Girardi helped the family cope with their apprehensions by giving them a personal tour of the building. "Nick made us very welcome. He was very friendly," Cheong said. "Even before she started school, I knew it was the place for her."
Daley said that Girardi has built a sense of community at Cedar Lane, in part by having an open-door policy with parents. "He recognizes the importance of the parent voice in making decisions for children, especially children with significant disabilities," she said.
As the parent of such a child, Cheong said, she has been impressed by Girardi's "involvement with the children. Yes, he's the principal - but he's not always in his office. He's out and about," having lunch with students or greeting them in the hallways.
Added Roper: "He comes into your classroom, always making a point of saying hello or shaking a student's hand, talking to your students. He makes sure he stops and says hello to everyone."
Last week, Girardi celebrated his retirement with students. A PTA-sponsored family day included a Moon Bounce and art activities. Staff members gave Girardi a scrapbook with mementos and photographs of the students. Last night, a formal retirement dinner for Girardi was scheduled at Savage Mill.
After Girardi retires June 29, Paul Owens, the assistant principal at Hollifield Station Elementary, will be Cedar Lane's principal. Girardi and his wife plan to move to Ellicott City. Their three children are grown.
Girardi hopes to teach at the university level.
"Often, new special-education teachers don't stay in the field because there are so many complex challenges," he said. He'd like to share his experiences and help new teachers "develop a love for the field."