Harford schools to mix disabled, other students Southampton Middle leads the way

December 13, 1992|By Sherrie Ruhl | Sherrie Ruhl,Staff Writer

It's lunchtime at Southampton Middle School, and the roar from hundreds of adolescents spills out of the cafeteria and into the halls.

Tracy Hollenshade and Laura Wienholt shout to make themselves heard. Tracy taps Gina Panza on the shoulder to get her attention. "Hello, Gina, how are you?" she asks.

Gina claps her hands, her brown braid bobbing through the white plastic helmet she wears because of her cerebral palsy.

L Laura and Tracy, both 12 and in seventh grade, are ecstatic.

"Oh Gina, that's really good," Laura says, clapping back.

Gina, 13, came to Southampton last year as part of a pilot program to integrate students with disabilities into classes with regular students. Southampton has become a model for other county schools, which willbegin absorbing disabled students in the next few years. Two other schools, Prospect Mill Elementary and C. Milton Wright, are pilot schools.

The school board recently passed a five-year special education plan which would make each of its 45 schools capable of teaching students with disabilities. It will require $1.2 million worth of building changes, like adding elevators or ramps, and hiring 73 teachers and 48 instructional assistants. The new slots would increase the school system's payroll by $3.4 million.

The pilot program at Southampton began with four students, including Gina. These students have "intensity five" disabilities, meaning they need daylong special services. Of nearly 1,440 students, the school has about 130 special education youngsters with intensity one, the mildest, through intensity five disabilities. Students with intensity six disabilities, the most severe, are typically in residential placement.

About 11 percent of the school system's 34,000 students receive special education services. This year, the system will spend about $11 million of its $141 million budget on special education. Students with disabilities include children with physical handicaps, such as vision or hearing impairments, and those with learning disabilities and mental retardation.

At Southampton, said Principal Barbara P. Canavan: "This school made a commitment to integration, and we made it work," Southampton Principal Barbara P. Canavan said.

Integration has succeeded, Mrs. Canavan said, because she got the resources she needed,including instructional assistants, like

Angie Schoendienst, who work with regular teachers in the classroom.

At lunchtime, Gina and Ms. Schoendienst slowly climb the stairs, though the school has an elevator.

"Gina likes to climb stairs," said Ms. Schoendienst. It's good practice for Gina, who willhave to negotiate stairs outside the school.

"Integrating students can be a real challenge," Ms. Schoendienst said. "It has worked out well this year for Gina. We have been able to adapt whatever the other kids were doing for her," she said.

For example, if the home economics class is learning to make pancakes from scratch, special education children like Gina can microwave frozen pancakes. "They can learn to do the same things, but just do them differently," said Debbie Phelps, a home economics teacher.

Mrs. Phelps said she was "very leery" of the project when it started but is now one of integrated special education's most ardent supporters.

"I had some doubts at the beginning about how well the classroom could be adapted for these kids," she said.

Mrs. Phelps said other students in the class are not kept waiting while Gina works because the instructional assistant, Ms. Schoendienst, works with Gina, she said.

Making regular teachers feel comfortable with disabled students has been vital to Southampton's success, said Jim Haas, a special education teacher.

Disabled students like Gina are not "dumped" in regular classrooms, he said. "These students are getting the same services they would have gotten before but in a different setting," he added.

Regular teachers, like Mrs. Phelps, get training to help them teach disabled students. And they get support from instructional assistants and special education teachers, Mr. Haas said. Mr. Haas taught at John Archer for 20 years before coming to Southampton.

Students with disabilities are "tracked" through the school day, to make sure they are getting special services, for example speech therapy, along with core classes.

Mrs. Canavan, the principal, said the school's other students have generally accepted their disabled peers.

The school taught students, like Gina's friends Tracy and Laura, about disabilities in language arts classes.

Other students, like 13-year-old Stacy Sanderson, volunteered to become "peer ambassadors," who sit with special education students during lunch, help them find their way to class and try to include them in everyday events.

"I think a lot of students were scared of the disabled kids at first because they were so different. I used to be scared myself," Stacy said.

In the past, many children with disabilities had been placed in separate classrooms within a regular school or, like Gina, bused to a special education center such as John Archer School.

NB Gina's mother, Joanne Panza, said her daughter loves attending

Southampton. "Gina is getting social skills there she never got any place else," Mrs. Panza said.

Another parent, Al Allgeier, said attending Southampton has made his 14-year-old daughter, Lori, more independent.

Mr. Allgeier, a single father, said he believes Lori, who has cerebral palsy, is better prepared for the future because she spends time with students who are not disabled.

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