When Samuel Rynasiewicz is out romping with other children on the playground, he looks like any other student.
But, Sam, 9, is unique among the other 585 students at Rodgers Forge Elementary School in Baltimore County. Sam has Down's syndrome and is the only mentally retarded student attending the school.
Schools are bound by law to place disabled youths in the least restrictive setting possible. In Baltimore County and around the state, there are other mentally retarded students attending neighborhood schools. But the majority go to special-education schools.
Sam's parents, Robert Rynasiewicz and Barbara Shellhorn, decided they did not want that for their son. But they had to get a lawyer and an expert on placing disabled children in mainstream schools before county school officials agreed to place Sam in Rodgers Forge.
School officials first believed that Sam would be better off at a special-education school, said Ms. Shellhorn.
"We said this can't be done! They have no peers. No role models. They need to see other children," said Ms. Shellhorn speaking of her son and other disabled children. "We said at the age of 21, Sam has to go out into society. So we started the process of getting him out."
Sam began attending Rodgers Forge in March, a year and a half after his parents started their battle to enroll him there. The family moved to Maryland from Cleveland in 1986, where Sam was attending preschool at his neighborhood elementary school.
After an evaluation by Baltimore County school officials, the familywas told that Sam should attend Ridge School, which serves only disabled students, Ms. Shellhorn and school officials said.
"We weren't happy about it but we let it go, thinking that all states have good educational systems," Ms. Shellhorn said.
The following year, Sam's parents enrolled him in extracurricular activities outside of school, such as music and sports classes, where he was often the only retarded child in a group.
"We began to think, why isn't he in a regular school?" Ms. Shellhorn said. "When you have a disabled child, you get used to thinking in immediate terms. But then we started looking forward. He was in regular classes in every other part of his life, why shouldn't it be that way at school?"
In the spring of 1990, the parents requested an "Admissions, Review and Dismissal" meeting with a team of school officials and asked for a new individualized educational plan for Sam. Ms. Shellhorn found that meeting daunting.
"It's a very intimidating event," she said. "They look at you and say that they know what is best for your child. You have to maintain that you know what is best for your child. We requested that Sam be placed in the least restrictive environment and they said they wanted to do a test."
The family came to a second meeting with an advocate from theMaryland Coalition for Integrated Education. The coalition works to get children with disabilities into integrated school settings.
"They said Pleasant Plains was the best place for him," Ms. Shellhorn said. "They called it a transitional class."
Pleasant Plains is a neighborhood school, but Sam was placed in a class with other students who had similar disabilities. That was not good enough for his parents. They had no complaints with the teachers at Pleasant Plains but still wanted their son at Rodgers Forge.
So last winter they requested another meeting and this time brought with them an attorney from the Maryland Disability Law Center and Dr. Larry Larsen, a Johns Hopkins University expert on special education.
"He was probably our most important witness," Ms. Shellhorn said of Dr. Larsen.
Before the meeting, Dr. Larsen went to Pleasant Plains to see Sam in school and sat in on a class at Rodgers Forge.
"I felt that Sam could easily be placed in a regular third-grade homeroom," Dr. Larsen said. "I didn't think there would be a need for any major adjustments or modifications."
Dr. Larsen believes such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis but that, generally, school systems should be integrating more disabled children into neighborhood schools.
Betty McDermott, an area supervisor for the school system who attended the meetings with Sam's parents, said she is delighted that Sam is doing so well at Rodgers Forge. But she is convinced that school officials did the right thing by moving slowly.
"He seems to be doing well and seems to be looking at other students as role models," Mrs. McDermott said. "However, I feel we would not have the success we have if we hadn't moved in small steps."
She said the tests that Sam was given convinced school officials that Sam could progress at his neighborhood school.
The decision to let him attend Rodgers Forge was "based on information from that test and the fact that his parents really wanted him there," Mrs. McDermott said.