Helping Hand For Disabled A High Priority

Schools Aim Varied Programs At 9,100 Special Students


Until fifth grade, 13-year-old Kevin Wells spent his day isolated inthe orthopedic wing of Oakwood Elementary in his wheelchair. Opportunities for him to mix with other students were limited to social studies and science classes.

No more. Kevin, now in the eighth grade, is being mainstreamed. He is taking courses -- except for a select few, such as gym and art -- along with the rest of his classmates.

"I like being with the other kids," he says.

Even though Werdnig-Hoffman's disease, a neuro-muscular condition associated with spinal muscular atrophy, limits Kevin to the use of only two fingers and a weak muscle in the back of his neck, he has managed to more than keep up with his classmates. He is a regular on Corkran Middle School'shonor roll and placed third at February's countywide spelling bee.

"I'm planning to go to college to do something with computers," Kevin says earnestly. "I think about teaching occasionally."

Expansion of their world through mainstreaming is the goal county school officials are pursuing for their special education students. Not only does this help handicapped students reach their full potential, educators say, but it helps other students learn to accept those different from themselves.

Not everyone agrees. Some educators -- and parents -- fear school systems support mainstreaming only as an easy way of reducing the need for special schools and programs for the handicapped, thus lessening special education's effect on tight school budgets. They worry that such students need more one-on-one attention.

But mainstreaming remains the preferred option in Anne Arundel, where 9,100 of the county's 65,000 students are enrolled in special education classes. Their afflictions run the gamut from emotional problems and mild learning disabilities to severe mental retardation and medicallyfragile conditions.

"It's important that we get students and staff talking," said Paulette Henson, special education integration specialist. "It's so easy to see what differences there are, but we want them and others to begin focusing on how they are the same.

"Havinga disability is just another way to be challenged."

County is leader

Both Maryland and Anne Arundel County have been lauded as leaders in special education. The state is one of only six in the nation that have a formal early-intervention program, called the Parent Infant Program, geared to recognize potential problems in babies.

AnneArundel is designated by military officials as one of two preferred locations for families of students with disabilities. The other is Fort Lewis, Wash.

But caring for handicapped students from birth to age 21 carries a hefty price tag -- one that goes beyond specially trained teachers and customized instructional materials.

In Kevin's case, for example, Delia Stumpf, an aide assigned to him by the school system, monitors his health, takes his notes in class and serves asa study partner. The county employs 40 such aides, at a total cost of $580,000, for physically-disabled students. In addition, 186 instructional assistants, with a combined salary of $2.6 million, are assigned to the special education department.

"Aside from health insurance and fixed charges (such as worker's compensation, Social Securitytaxes, etc.), no part of the budget has grown faster than special education," says School Superintendent Larry L. Lorton, whose school system faced an $8 million budget deficit this year.

In the face of those financial woes, special education has not escaped unscathed. Already, to help offset a hiring freeze and reduction in the use of substitutes, 13 resource teachers have been ordered back to the classroom. Normally, those teachers would work with parents and staff in designing and fine-tuning the special education curriculum.

But even in hard times, school officials hesitate to make cuts in special education. Besides the public relations nightmare such cuts can cause, strict federal and state laws mandate both specialized equipment and lowstudent-teacher ratios.

"Special education is a major cost factorin this school system," school Budget Officer Jack White says. "I'm not taking a position whether that is good or bad. It's a fact of life we have to deal with."

Special education accounts for 8.9 percent of the school system's $330.1 million 1990-1991 budget. Of the total $29.6 million for special education, $19.7 million comes from county government, $8.1 million from state government, and $1.8 million from the federal government.

County Executive Robert R. Neall's proposed spending plan for 1991-1992 calls for an increase of 14.3 percent in the special education budget, to $33.8 million.

Anne Arundel's competitive instructional salaries -- it ranks fifth in the state, behind Montgomery, Baltimore, Prince George's and Howard counties -- have helped attract teachers. But because of strict state certification requirements, the pool of available teachers grows smaller every year. And competition grows tougher.

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