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School's upgrade is weighed

The Baltimore Sun

County schools officials are working on plans to modernize the 36-year-old John Archer School, the only public facility in the county dedicated solely to providing education services for children with disabilities.

The school board has been discussing whether to undertake a full-scale renovation of the building or move its functions to a new facility, said Don Morrison, a spokesman for the school system.

Schools officials are favoring a new facility, which would be built onto an existing county school in accordance with state requirements, said Ann-Marie Spakowski, the director of special education for county schools.

Whatever option is chosen, the programs have outgrown the building on Thomas Run Road in Bel Air, and more amenities are sorely needed, Spakowski said.

"The school we have is too small to accommodate our students," Spakowski said. "We need a larger nurse's suite, and more storage space. We need changing areas, so we can give students privacy. We can't always do that at our current location."

One option under consideration is building a wing on Bel Air Middle School, which is also due for modernization, Spakowski said. State law prohibits new construction of facilities for special needs students from being housed in stand-alone buildings, a requirement established long after John Archer, a separate structure, was built.

"The state wants to see as much integration as possible for students with disabilities," Spakowski said.

The other option is to revamp the 63,984-square-foot building that houses the school, which has an enrollment of 143 students, she said. It has a sound structure but needs extensive renovation and upgrade to meet the medical needs of the students, Spakowski said.

"The students we serve are different now than they were 10 years ago," Spakowski said. "Back then these children would normally be in a hospital setting."

Spakowski organized a meeting with parents of John Archer students last week to inform them of plans to upgrade the school.

The current building is too old to warrant being renovated, said Ray Leonard, whose 10-year-old son, Mason, attends John Archer.

"The heating and air-conditioning system is on its last leg, and the hallways are always crowded with stuff that interferes with the mobility of the kids," said Leonard, who attended the meeting with Spakowski. "Sometimes I walk by the nurses office and there are just too many kids in there. A larger, newer facility would resolve these issues."

If the board chooses to build a new facility, he would like to see parent involvement in designing the new building, he said.

"I think that parents understand the needs of their children better than anyone," Leonard said.

Other benefits of a new facility include closer proximity to other schools and a hospital. The move would enable students to participate in typical school activities with their nondisabled peers, he said.

"The kids may not be able to participate in much, but they could at least go to choral shows or assemblies," Leonard said.

A new facility also could place the school closer to Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, Spakowski said.

"Because of the medical conditions of some of the students at John Archer, we frequently have to call an ambulance to have students taken to the emergency room," she said. "Being close to a hospital is becoming a necessity."

County schools officials will meet with state administrators next month to review options for upgrading the school.

Cost estimates have not been calculated because the school system's capital budget for the coming fiscal year has not been finalized, said Morrison, the schools spokesman.

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