What some see as the future for children with serious emotional problems in suburban Baltimore could become history this week.
In the next few days, the Children's Guild of Baltimore will decide whether to close its special education extension program in Howard County.
"I'd love to tell you it's going to exist," said Stanley Mopsik, th guild's executive director. But "we don't know if we're going to be able to continue."
The problem is money. Despite predictions by education officials, the fledgling program has not attracted enough students to cover costs, Mr. Mopsik said.
The Children's Guild is a private, non-profit organization founded in 1953 to provide education and intensive psychotherapy to emotionally disturbed children who cannot function in regular schools.
It opened its extension program last year at Taylor Manor Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Ellicott City.The purpose was to reduce commuting time for students from Howard and surrounding counties. The program is the only one of its kind in the city's southern suburbs.
Currently, only 13 students are enrolled. The program needs at least 15 to meet expenses. Education officials had estimated that as many as 21 might attend.
If it closes, students will have to commute to the Children's Guild campus in Northeast Baltimore. The bus trip would take from 45 minutes to an hour and a half one-way, said Revanette Gilmore, the Howard program's assistant principal.
This is particularly bad news for students. Some of them are hyperactive. Others suffer from depression or have low tolerance for frustration. "All that with a long ride makes for a rough beginning to the school day," Ms. Gilmore said.
Easily agitated, the students already have trouble settling in each morning to learn. Calming them down after a long bus ride would take time away from their studies, Ms. Gilmore said.
Some parents dread the program's possible shutdown.
Chris Coleman, 10, has had trouble getting along with other students in the past and is easily aggravated. Since entering the Howard program, he has calmed down and is getting along better with classmates, said his mother, Betty. "He's improved 100 percent this year," she said.
However, long bus rides give Chris headaches and make him throw up, said Mrs. Coleman, who lives on the outskirts of Laurel. With stops for other children, the bus ride to Northeast Baltimore will take an hour and a half, she said.
Ronnell Cole, 11, has been classified as hyperactive. He has spent 2 1/2 years with the Children's Guild in Baltimore and Howard County. His behavior and studies have improved so much that his mother thinks he will probably return to a regular school next year.
"When he first went there he could hardly read," said Christine Cole, who lives in Columbia. "Now he's only one grade below his level."
Mrs. Cole worries that his behavior and academic performance will suffer if he has to commute to Baltimore. "Imagine how a kid who is characterized as hyperactive will react on an hour and a half bus ride."
The potential loss of the program also disheartens professionals in the field. Some had hoped that the partnership between the Children's Guild and Taylor Manor might encourage more satellite programs in the suburbs.
"Stan [Mopsik] is an innovator," said Myrna Cardin, executive director of the Maryland Association of Non-Public Special Education Facilities. "The reason we're especially upset is, this is the future."
The only other schools that serve emotionally handicapped elementary school-age children in suburban Baltimore are The Forbush School in Towson and Villa Maria School in Timonium, Ms. Cardin said.
The Children's Guild came up with the idea for an extension program two years ago after noticing that as many as nine of the children at the Baltimore campus lived in Howard County. No one seems able to explain why many more haven't enrolled.
"We thought there were enough kids out there to support the program," said Mr. Mopsik. But "you have to recognize," he added, "this is not a very precise business."
The Children's Guild receives all of its students through referrals from the public school system. Sandy Marx, the county's director of special education, says that the state has recently emphasized providing more services to emotionally disturbed students in regular schools. This may have reduced the number of candidates for the Children's Guild program, she said.
In the world of special education, money is a constant concern. It costs $21,000 a year to educate a child in the Children's Guild's Howard County program.
The local school district pays about $18,000 and the state picks up the rest. Parents pay nothing.
The program costs a lot because it is labor intensive. Teaching students with short attention spans and tempers requires lots of well-trained people and patience.
One morning last week was instructive. Students spent the first half hour just trying to settle in. Minor crises flared up like summer brush fires.
In one classroom, a little boy in a striped rugby shirt walked up to a girl in a pink jumper and, without any apparent provocation, placed his nose within an inch of hers.
"Do you have a problem?" he asked angrily.
"Get out of my face," the girl snapped back.
Before things got out of hand, teacher Mary Earickson ushered the boy out of class and into a small room where he could cool off under supervision of a man specially trained to diffuse potential crises.
The specialist provides one of a number of services that are not available in the county school system. They include a therapist ,, for each child and a psychiatrist to monitor children's medication six hours a week.
Although the Howard County program is expensive, parents say it is worth it.
L Chris Coleman used to hate going to school. Now he likes it.
"I sure would hate to see it close down," his mother said.