Phoenix's Miracles Don't Get Publicity

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February 21, 1993|By ELISE ARMACOST

In some ways, Bill Haroth has what every public educator dreams of having.

Classes with no more than nine students. No budget worries. A personal relationship with every child in his school. A personal relationship with the parents of every child. The joy of watching students on whom the system had given up make the honor roll.

In other ways, Bill Haroth has what few public educators would want: Responsibility for 85 children -- kindergarteners to high school seniors -- suffering from schizophrenia, chronic depression, abnormal aggressiveness and other serious emotional problems.

He is the principal of the Phoenix Center, a special education school that's been quietly working miracles with some of our most troubled kids since it opened in 1975, the year the federal government mandated "free, appropriate education" for all handicapped children. In the hierarchy of special education services, this is the last chance for anything resembling regular schooling.

Few countians have any idea what is going on inside the 1930s-era school building on Farrugut Road in Annapolis. If they've heard of the Phoenix Center at all, it's probably a bad impression based on the occasional police blotter involving one of its students.

That is both unfortunate and unfair. There are more successes here than disappointments. Of 126 students who attended Phoenix Center last year, only eight had to be sent to more severe programs. The rest stayed or returned to regular schools.

But no one hears about them. No one knows about Sabrina, an 11th grader who was shifted from relative to friend to relative since she was six months old, got in trouble with drugs and alcohol, ran away when she was in middle school and ended up in Sheppard Pratt Hospital.

Everyone expected her to fail when she came here three years ago. "People thought she was too sick to be in a community," Mr. Haroth says. "I figured she wouldn't last a week. She was out of control."

Sabrina's been making the honor roll for two years running. Now, she talks about going to college and becoming a veterinarian. "That's my dream," she says.

No one ever heard of Heidi or Harvey, either. Heidi spent two years at the Phoenix Center. Seriously psychotic, she suffered visual and auditory hallucinations and was hospitalized many times, Mr. Haroth says.

She's now a student at Anne Arundel Community College.

For Harvey, who's been in and out of institutions his whole life, this is his first school experience in years. He's doing well in a vo-tech construction program.

You may have heard of Dale. Six years ago, when he was eight, he made headlines when he used a soda bottle to conk a thief who stole his mother's car -- with him in it. The car crashed into a telephone pole, and Dale and the driver escaped with minor injuries. The thief was charged with kidnapping and robbery.

Unfortunately, Dale's aggressiveness usually does not serve him well. He's a handful even now that he's making the honor roll and learning to control his hot head.

Twenty years ago, children like these probably wouldn't have stood a chance. Emotionally troubled kids were shunted off to Crownsville Hospital or private institutions, an arrangement that left many of them unable to function in the real world, says Mr. Haroth, who taught at Crownsville before becoming Phoenix's first and only principal.

Things have come a long way. Emotionally disturbed children no longer are treated as a homogenous lump. They are isolated from mainstream society as a last resort rather than a matter of course. The system now provides for seven increasingly intense levels of special education service, ranging from use of special materials in a regular classroom to homebound instruction.

The kids at the Phoenix Center are at the fifth level. Most of them see therapists outside of school. Many are on medication.

Do not underestimate the toll exacted by dealing with these children. Studies show that about half of all special education teachers quit after only three years, a fact that makes Mr. pTC Haroth's longevity -- 23 years working with emotionally disturbed children -- downright remarkable.

The people who work at the Phoenix Center have limitless patience and are masters of the art of establishing clear authority while cultivating a personal friendship with every single student. This is an ideal for all teachers; it is a must for those who deal with children like these.

"I know them all," Mr. Haroth says, a conservative-looking man with glasses, not the type you'd think kids would gravitate toward. Yet his office is a thruway, with kids passing in and out, sometimes for no better reason than to say hello.

"He's funny," Dale says. "You all right with him, he's all right with you. And he'll lend you money, but you got to pay him back."

It's not just him.

"It's the school," Sabrina says.

That kind of tribute -- it's something all our public schools should be able to enjoy.

Elise Armacost is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

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