Usually, the sight of six teen-agers shopping at the mall on a school day would arouse suspicion. But these particular "special needs" students aren't playing hooky -- they're actually in school.
On this day, Harford Mall is their classroom, price tags are teaching tools and sales clerks may unwittingly be teacher assistants. The trip is part of Community Based Instruction (CBI), a new program of the Special Education Department of Harford County public schools.
CBI takes the students to businesses where they can do everyday errands. Some frequently used sites include Klein's Supermarkets, restaurants and stores in Beards Hill, Campus Hills and The Festival at Bel Air shopping centers, Wal-Mart, and Signet Bank.
"The purpose of the program," explains Maxine Groller, a CBI coordinator, "is to help special needs students utilize what they learn in school in the community."
Dr. Diane Fadely, assistant supervisor of special education, says, "There is a concrete research base for the program. Studies show that special needs children don't transfer classroom learning to real-life situations. It's tough for them to make the switch, so our goal is to help them develop experience."
So, for these youngsters, shopping is a learning opportunity. Goals are set according to the intensity level of each student's disability. Some are expected to get gift ideas for family members. Others must compare prices and stay within a budget.
As Ms. Groller and two aides gather the students in the main courtyard of the mall, the first priority is safety.
"Where do you go if you get lost?" asks Ms. Groller, raising her voice above the din of the nearby kiddie train.
"The courtesy desk," Holly, a blind student who attends Southampton Middle School, responds brightly.
Jody, a bubbly eighth-grader with lively blue eyes, responds by showing off her identification card. The students made the cards themselves in computer class in preparation for the outing.
Watches are synchronized and the group splits up. Michael, a talkative 10th-grader at C. Milton Wright High School, is on his lTC own to window shop until the designated meeting time. Grabbing his leg braces, he hops off the bench and heads straight for Radio Shack.
Meanwhile, Jody and Dawn, accompanied by aide Marion Mascari, are off to shop for women's clothing.
Dawn is a study in concentration as she inspects skirts and slacks, but Jody can't seem to get interested in shopping.
"When are we getting a pretzel?" Jody asks every few minutes.
Showing signs of frustration, Dawn finally finds the price tag on a pair of slacks. "Wow!" she exclaims, spying some denim overalls.
"Is that a good idea for your mom?" asks Ms. Mascari.
"No, for me!" Dawn shouts.
Meanwhile, Holly is choosing a shirt for her father. Ms. Groller shows her how to feel the collars to see whether a garment is a T-shirt or a dress shirt.
When the group reassembles, it's time for a break, but a problem arises. Which way is the food court? Michael gets a store directory from the courtesy desk and wails theatrically, "Oh, no, now I have to read this crazy map!"
Ms. Groller bursts into laughter. With 22 years in special education, her patience is matched only by her sense of humor. And, though her affection for these students is obvious, she doesn't coddle them.
Michael makes a few false starts, but she lets him discover his own mistakes until, eventually, he leads the group in the right direction.
As the kids relax over snacks, Ms. Groller shares her enthusiasm about Community Based Instruction and the many people who make it possible. Parents, principals, school psychologists, librarians, and a multitude of therapists and specialists all are part of the CBI team.
For Ms. Groller, the rewards are worth the effort. She calls it the "Aha!" experience -- the joy of seeing the light of understanding brighten a child's eyes as he (or she) suddenly recognizes he's using a skill he learned in school.
CBI is in its second year in Harford County, where students at John Archer School and eight of the 17 secondary schools may be referred to the program.
Schools spokesman Donald Morrison estimates that 11 percent to 12 percent of the 36,000 students in Harford County are in the special education program. About 75 of those students are in the CBI program this year.
So far, CBI has received high marks from parents and administrators, and merchants in the community have warmly welcomed the students. Future plans include expansion to other county secondary schools.