Like its students, this school needs a second chance

MICHAEL OLESKER

January 10, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Mary Kinney, standing by the front door of her classroom at Sharp-Leadenhall Elementary School the other morning, looks at her students and asks a simple question:

"Who made a New Year's resolution?"

Hands shoot eagerly into the air. Consider the possibilities, reader. The children are 9 years old. Imagine their innocence.

"I resolve not to throw chairs around the room," says a boy in a hooded sweat shirt.

Mary Kinney smiles approvingly.

"No more fighting in class," says a fellow missing a piece of front tooth.

Principal Mariale Hardiman, standing behind Kinney, nods her head happily.

"And if we do fight," says a third kid, "we have to keep the chairs on the floor."

At Sharp-Leadenhall, this is known as progress.

About 90 children attend this South Baltimore school, but not until they've been thrown out of other schools, released from hospitals, diagnosed as intellectually capable but deeply troubled emotionally.

They range from 6 to 12 years old, and they come here with psychological folders several inches deep, and histories that make you cringe.

"We have children," says principal Hardiman, speaking in calm, measured, sympathetic tones, "who are psychotic, who are hallucinatory, who have chemical imbalances and have to be medicated regularly. We have one boy who tied his cousins to the light-rail tracks. Some have a history of setting fires. We have a 9-year-old who put his teacher in the hospital for a week. . . ."

"Like my grandson," says a man sitting in Hardiman's office. "He was 5 and putting people in the hospital regularly. He got bounced around. He was acting out to keep somebody from hurting him. Now he comes here, and he's doing work on a computer. He's finding himself. That's why they can't close this school."

At the moment, it seems a cry in the wilderness. On North Avenue, where education bureaucrats shuffle their various papers, there are tentative plans to close Sharp-Leadenhall at the end of this school year.

"The reason," says Hardiman, "is totally and purely economic. The planning department looked at numbers, and they didn't take programs into concern at all. It's pure cost factor. They want to put these kids into the mainstream population."

The mind boggles at the possibilities of these children being moved into public school classrooms. At Sharp-Leadenhall, there are a teacher and an assistant for every nine children. In the public elementary schools, the ratio is 30 to 1, and that's just the tip of the problem.

Walk around Sharp-Leadenhall and sense the rest of it: outbursts regular as clockwork, with staff members moving in to gently restore calm; kids erupting over problems real and imagined, large and small, and staffers helping while the learning goes on purposefully.

At city school headquarters, though, some officials are pushing hard to shift these children into mainstream public schools.

"I understand the philosophy of inclusion," says Hardiman, "and I know that [they want] to move mentally retarded children into mainstream schools. Philosophically, I agree with that.

"But not with these children. Almost every one of these kids has already been in two, three, four different mainstream schools. They couldn't do it. They've proven they can't function in a regular school yet. It took them a long time to get here, and lots of evaluations, and they've finally found a place where they can make it."

Some argue: Why stigmatize children by putting them into a special school removed from others their age? The answer to that is as simple as a glance inside any of Sharp-Leadenhall's classrooms.

"That fellow," a teacher's aide says, pointing to a 10-year-old, "is just back from Sheppard Pratt. The one next to him has assaulted three teachers. Behind him, a complete and consummate arsonist. . . ."

Parents have scheduled a rally for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Cherry Hill Middle School to try to save Sharp-Leadenhall. At least one staff member, counselor Penny Love, who has been there since the school opened 15 years ago, says there's no alternative.

"Send these kids to regular schools," she said last week, "and they're the ones who'll wind up knocking you down and robbing you. These are kids with potential, but we're stealing it from them if we don't care for them now.

"Away from the hubbub of a big classroom, they can make it. But right now, they're angry, and rightly so. Many are hyperactive. Many have been abused, and they're lashing out. You know, they talk about safe schools -- well, not if these kids are put there. Not now."

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