The eight children gather in a semi-circle near the front of the classroom. Sharon Harrison, their teacher, looks at each child, her dark eyes moving slowly from face to face, as she says, "Today we're learning about people, places and things."
One child says that a house is a place.
Another child answers that a bell is a thing.
Finally, Mrs. Harrison places a drawing of a white building with a steeple on the blackboard and turns, her eyes settling on a single student. Nicole, 7 years old, responds slowly. Dozens of muscles must work together and the air must come from deep inside for her to utter the simplest sound. Nervously, Nicole raises her fingers to cover her mouth. What comes out, an abstract of garbled sounds, is barely comprehensible. But she is understood by all.
Church is place. Mama go to church.
WERE IT NOT FOR HER mother, Nicole would probably not be in this special education speech and language class at Baltimore city's Harford Heights Elementary School. She is the youngest of the children ranging in age from 7 to 9. She is the smallest. The least expressive. The child who needs the most attention. "If I leave her alone with a puzzle," says Mrs. Harrison, "I come back 10 minutes later and sometimes Nicole is still holding the same piece, still stuck at the same place."
But her mother, Louisa DiSeta, a 39-year-old patient coordinator at Francis Scott Key Medical Center, has fought for this: for her child to be mainstreamed into the city school system. She has prodded the system and pushed the law as far as it will go to accommodate her child, who has cerebral palsy. And that's why Nicole, a sweet and determined child, is in this unique program specifically developed to meet her needs, a program that is, in the words of Dr. Dorothy Coleman, head of the city's speech and language services, "still a work in progress."
Nicole, student number 000-93-5641, is in Mrs. Harrison's class because of the 1975 federal law that ensures all handicapped children the right to an appropriate public education in the least restrictive setting.
In an overburdened city school system with almost 18,000 children needing special education services out of a total school population of 109,000, what has happened to Nicole is either a miracle or a model of how the system should work.
In a city where an average of $4,200 per student is spent, #F Nicole's Individual Educational Program this year will cost $11,414. The numbers add up this way, according to school spokesman Doug Neilson: daily instruction at $6,620, speech instruction at $1,590, occupational therapy at $1,060 and transportation at $2,144.
Of course, the city school system didn't come to the DiSetas in Highlandtown and bestow these wonderful gifts on their child. Mrs. DiSeta started fighting the day her child was born and hasn't stopped fighting since.
NICOLE'S PROGRESS CAN BE measured by the charts -- where she has always fallen far below normal -- or by the small achievements that come now almost every day.
Mrs. DiSeta turns the key to the front door of a neat Formstone row house on East Avenue and thinks about what is ahead for her: dinner, laundry, cleaning and homework, playtime, bath time, bedtime and reading to Nicole.
"Everybody always says to me, 'Oh, Louisa, what a wonderful job you've done. Look how far she's come. Don't worry, hon, she'll be OK.' And I think, 'You don't know what it's like. You should spend some time in my shoes and see what it's like every day. How much we have to do.' "
Mrs. DiSeta hangs up her coat and before she's even in the hallway, Nicole is squealing "Ma-Ma, Ma-Ma," and hugging her as tight as her thin arms will allow.
"Hello, my little girlfriend," says Mrs. DiSeta, blowing kisses, as she makes her way into the kitchen, where the walls are covered with number drawings and alphabet charts for her daughter. "Nicole can count to 20," she says, proudly. "She knows her ABCs. Just listen. C'mon Nicole, let's recite the alphabet."
"Aah, Baa, Ca, Da, Eh, Ef, Gee, Ach, Iaa . . . " Nicole recites on cue, until losing her place, the letters decipherable because a listener knows what comes next.
But Nicole has already come so far. Just look for yourself, her parents urge. And a visitor can watch Nicole, slight and hazel-eyed -- some say a Louisa in miniature -- at play on the couch with Cricket, her talking doll. Cricket, blond hair pulled out in patches, ragged now, has been talking to Nicole since she was 2 years old, and they were about the same size. Now sitting side by side on the couch, they have a conversation of sorts. Cricket still does most of the talking -- "What barks and has a tail?" she asks -- and Nicole mimics the words. She talks back even when nobody's listening.