Gina Panza passed a test of sorts the other day when her teachers needed a few minutes to find her in Southampton Middle School's cafeteria.
The 12-year-old immediately would have been spotted in a hallway, where she wears a white plastic helmet to protect her against thefalls that come with cerebral palsy.
But sitting bareheaded with a group of her sixth-grade classmates, Gina easily was overlooked amid the din and chaos of the crowded lunchroom.
Gina's relative anonymity is a crucial test for her and the school, which launched a pilot program this year to integrate mentally retarded students into routine class settings.
"She's the kidwho really pushes the test," said Kathy Burr, who is coordinating efforts to mainstream special education students at Southampton and oneof its feeder schools, Prospect Mill Elementary.
Nobody stared when a student teacher cut up Gina's grilled cheese sandwich for her.
And a casual observer might not have noticed Crystal Hynes holding a juice cup until Gina was ready to grab it between the heels of her hands and slowly lift it to her mouth.
School officials say Crystal and 469 other pupils at Southampton who have volunteered to assist four sixth-graders being mainstreamed are demonstrating that special education students don't have to be segregated for education. The effort is called the Peer Ambassador program, sponsored by the state Department of Education and supported by a contract with the Maryland Coalition of Integrated Education.
"I've learned how to work with disabled people and learned that they want be treated like we want to be treated and not just like a person in a wheelchair," Crystal said.
Gina has a profound learning disability and is prone to minor seizures that could easily lead to ridicule in a school of 1,400 teens.
But the ridicule has not come. Instead, school officials were astounded when 470 pupils agreed to team up with the four sixth-graders who otherwise would have spent the year in a segregated special education program.
"Children benefit from being with their peers. That doesn't mean just intellectual peers. It also means their age peers," Southampton Principal Barbara Canavan said.
"I'm really in a state of shock at the progress we've made in nine weeks, not just with the (special education) students but the other students and the teachers as well."
The Southampton project will continue at least through the end of the next school year, when the state will evaluated it.
It could serve as a model countywide, giving parents the right to choose whether their special education children will be integrated in neighborhood schools.
Since the beginning of the year, Gina's peers say she holds her head up more, maintains better eye contact and willreturn a simple greeting within 30 seconds, half the time she used to take.
With so many volunteers, the peer program has evolved quickly into an experiment in mass awareness.
Sixth-grader Amanda Wieradmitted that before joining the Peer Ambassadors, she "might have gone along with it" if a group of students were laughing at Gina.
Even cruelty can be used to teach students, said Kathi Foley, a teaching specialist for the program assigned to the county by the state.
"A lot of times ridicule is based on fear," she said. "One way to treat fear is to educate people."
Amanda said she was nervous with Gina at first. "But I learned that if you give them a chance, they cando things," she said.
Counseling peer students in two-month shifts of 20 from the sixth, seventh and eighth grades, Burr teaches that the disabled pupils must be allowed to make their own choices -- evenif they are mistakes.
Sixth-grader Jodie Kinnan seemed stumped bya lunch-line choice between chicken nuggets and a meatball sub, saidher peer helper, Elizabeth O'Brien.
"She took the chicken nuggetsbut she just made faces when she sat down and said, 'Eew' and wouldn't eat it," Elizabeth said.
But Jodie was stuck once she picked the offending entree.
Gina's mother credits Southampton's Peer Ambassadors with helping her daughter begin developing skills she can use the rest of her life, like mastering the use of household utensils.
"It was very exciting to see her do that for the first time withoutus having to tell her to do it," Joanne Panza said. "The main motivation right now is that she's around other kids, all that attention, just the noise of it."
Gina has also mastered turning a tape recorder on and off with a special switch, which could lead to learning basic employment skills.
"That's my inner hope," Panza said. "I'd like to think that one day she can hold some kind of job, interact with other people every day and live more on her own."
For Jodie Kinnanand Lori Allgeier, sewing lessons in home economics class gives themsomething more than hope.
Both girls are improving motor functions using needle and thread and sewing machines.
Lori was reluctant to talk while she and a teacher's aide sewed appliques on a pillowcase.
But each time she pulled the thread through, she tapped a visitor on the knee and smiled brightly.
"The first day, we had to helpthem out completely," said Staci Sanders, a peer helper for Lori andJodie. "But in many ways, they're just like other people. After school, you know these people can handle themselves."