A. Roy Sawamura of Columbia always said no to programs that would have placed his daughter among able-bodied students.
Sawamura had worked with blind skiers in Colorado and had seen sighted people shy away from them. He didn't want that to happen to Lynn, who has cerebralpalsy and was enrolled in the special education program at Cedar Lane School. But when Lynn, 15, had a chance last year to be among the first students from Cedar Lane to attend a regular high school, her father decided to try it.
Lynn was one of 26 special education students who entered Atholton High under a program to integrate disabled students into the mainstream of high school life. Oakland Mills became the second high schoolin the mainstreaming program this year and now has 12 disabled students. Swansfield and Thunder Hill elementaries and Harper's Choice Middle School serve a similar function for younger students.
At Atholton, the special education students receive the same training and services they would get at Cedar Lane, from cooking instruction to hydrotherapy. They also have the chance to mingle with able-bodied Atholton students at pep rallies, in physical education weight training classes, in the halls and at lunch.
Sawamura's reaction at the end of one year: "It's been wonderful."
When he left his daughter in her wheelchair outside a fast-food restaurant to get her a soft drink, hereturned to find that three boys who knew Lynn from school had stopped to talk to her. "That had never happened before," Sawamura said.
Other students now stop and say hello when Sawamura takes his daughter to The Mall in Columbia.
Sawamura spent a day at school with his daughter last year and met some of the student assistants who helpin special education classes. Students who volunteer receive course credit for their work.
"The kids you see coming in and out of there just impressed the daylights out of me," Sawamura said. "They really don't know what they're giving to these kids."
Atholton Principal R. Scott Pfeifer said students have been "very accepting" of the Cedar Lane students, but he readily acknowledged that some still have reservations.
Jackie Chillemi, 17, a senior who was a special education student assistant last year, said the experience changed her view of the disabled students. "I respected them more, the courage they have. They're like trying to learn," she said.
Mike Monahan, 15, ajunior, said he was open-minded about the disabled students coming to Atholton, "but I don't think it's working out." Some of the specialeducation students behave inappropriately, he said, sometimes grabbing other students in the hall.
Bryan Celentano, 16, a junior, saidhe believed the mainstreaming program has worked well for some. He recalled that one student won several medals at last year's Special Olympics, "but for those with really bad problems, I don't think we're really helping them."
Special education teachers Jane Koren and Robert Simpson say their students haven't been made to feel unwelcome when they mingle in the halls or in the cafeteria.
"It's not a negative factor with our kids being verbally bothered or insulted," Simpson said. "The kids who feel like that (opposed to their presence) just seem to go their own way."
Special education students spend muchof the school day outside the building, learning to use ColumBus or shopping at village centers. Some of the older students are in a supervised work program to train as custodians at Howard County General Hospital.
Some special education students take weight training withother students, the only class at Atholton where the two groups meet.
"We are continually looking for ways to integrate them into the classroom," Pfeifer said. "That's a real challenge."
Sharing academic classes is difficult because of the large disparities in reading levels, said Pfeifer. He said art classes are a possibility, but integration cannot be done until he can find a way to create a smaller class. Art classes at Atholton are currently filled to capacity.
Thedisabled teen-agers also joined clubs and shared some school activities last year. Simpson and Koren took them to pep rallies, play rehearsals and soccer games. Some attended school dances. One joined the anti-drug and alcohol club, Students Helping Other People, one joined Atholton Students Advocating Peace, and several joined Atholton's club that corresponds with a sister school in Kamakura, Japan.
The teachers' job action will not prevent the students from continuing extracurricular activities this year, Pfeifer said.
Many teachers across the county are refusing to volunteer for after-school and evening activities this year to protest the county government's failure to finance the 6 percent pay raises negotiated in their contract.
Pfeifer said county recreation staff members will escort the special education students to athletic events.