Tommy Herman blossomed in third grade at Ring Factory Elementary School. He made lots of friends, got to be the computer room aide and did well academically.
None of this would have been possible if Tommy, a bright 10-year-old with severe, multiple physical disabilities, had remained segregated with other students with disabilities, says his mother, Patty Herman.
Tommy started attending Ring Factory last year as a third-grader after two years of being bused to a special education center for students with disabilities at William Paca Elementary School.
Now, the school system wants to send as many children with disabilities as possible to schools in their own neighborhoods by making sure each school is accessible to the disabled and equipped with resources -- such as special education teachers, computers and specialized equipment -- to educate these students.
"These children are part of the community," said John M. Mead, director of pupil services for county schools. "And we believe the best way for them to learn and, ultimately, grow up to be productive adults, is to attend school in their own community."
That's the main goal of a new five-year plan for educating students with disabilities, including physical handicaps, vision or hearing impairments, learning disabilities and mental retardation.
A coalition of school administrators, teachers and parents, called the Special Education Long-Range Task Force, worked two years to develop the plan, released Monday. It will be presented for public hearings in October, and the school board is expected to vote on it in November.
Rosemary King Johnston, a special education teacher and task force member, said the plan is "very significant" because it provides the school board a road map on how to best meet the needs of students with disabilities.
The plan also lists among goals intensive training for non-special education teachers and programs for non-disabled students and their parents to make them aware of the needs of students with disabilities, Ms. Johnston said. Also, she said, the plan stresses getting disabled children out of the school building to teach them to deal with practical day-to-day challenges.
"This means teaching kids what they need to know in the place where they need to use it -- in the community," Ms. Johnston said. "That means going to McDonald's and ordering a meal and paying for it or shopping for clothes at the mall. This is something that can't be taught inside a classroom."
The proposed plan includes no cost projection, but Mr. Mead, who headed the task force, said it would cost at least $1.2 million to meet just one goal -- making county schools and administrative buildings accessible.
The plan was also necessary to bring Harford County into compliance with state and federal laws requiring that children with disabilities be educated in the least-restrictive environment -- typically a neighborhood school. Almost always, that is a school in the child's neighborhood, the "home" school he or she would go to if he or she had no disabilities.
In Tommy's case, that meant Ring Factory Elementary, where his mother asked that he be placed. She wanted him to interact with typical students his own age and to take more academically challenging classes.
"This has been such a great boost to his self-esteem. He is like a different child," she said.
Tommy's interest in computers -- he must use a computer to write -- has formed many bonds between him and other children, his mother said.
Tommy is one of about 550 children in Harford County with an "intensity-four" disability -- a designation which refers to the type of services he needs and the number of hours each week he needs to receive those services. Intensity levels range from one, the mildest, to six, the most severe.
Intensity-four students typically need all-day special education,
as do the estimated 260 intensity-five students and the 25 intensity-six students. Children classified intensity one, two or three -- who make up the bulk of special education children -- now attend regular classes at their neighborhood schools.
Many elementary-age students with disabilities are now bused to one of eight centers at county elementary schools. As of December 1991, about 3,500 students with disabilities attended schools in Harford County, the latest tally available, Mr. Mead said.
Mr. Mead said that in the coming school year, six elementary schools will be prepared to educate most disabled students and that seven others will be capable of doing so the next school year.
By 1997, the special education plan envisions all but the intensity-six students attending regular schools in their own neighborhoods. For many students with disabilities, that will mark the first time they could attend a school in their own community.