The state's population of disabled children is expected to reach 120,000 by 2000, and Maryland educators are pointing to Anne Arundel County's special education program as a model to be copied by other school districts.
But there's dissent in the county about the program's track record and future.
Even as some parents weep with joy at the progress their children have made, critics say the program has fallen short of its potential.
Leola Forrester cries when she tells how the school system's Infants and Toddlers program helped her mildly retarded 11-year-old son.
"I was overwhelmed with caring for him," said Ms. Forrester, whose son benefited from the program's early intervention. "He was my miracle baby, a baby I wasn't supposed to have."
Douglas, whom she calls "Junior," began showing signs of mild retardation after becoming ill from accidentally eating a philodendron leaf, said Ms. Forrester, 43. He couldn't say "momma" or other words, and started hitting other children.
She credits Dr. Edward Feinberg, director of the infants program, and his staff with making her life with Douglas possible.
"They taught me how to love him, how to raise him right, and they taught us that he could learn," she said. "If I'd put him away, the way some doctors were suggesting, I wouldn't have known what he could do."
Twenty years ago children with disabilities often were institutionalized "or their parents were told to take them home and take care of them and love them," Dr. Feinberg said.
"There was very little in the terms of a systemwide approach, and many families were just lost. They felt abandoned," he said. "Now, we're able to provide more support."
By all accounts, the Infants and Toddlers program -- started five years before a 1980 state mandate to provide special services for disabled toddlers -- is the crown jewel of Anne Arundel County's special education program. Enrollment, about 100 students in 1975, has risen to 490 students.
"They really have done some very innovative work, especially in the area of working with younger children," said Richard J. Steinke, an assistant state superintendent.
The county had earned high marks for its practice of inclusion, teaching special ed students in neighborhood schools instead of separate schools. Now parents and teachers are concerned about the practice.
Battles over inclusion
Battles over the inclusion concept have raged in other school districts, such as Baltimore County.
Anne Arundel's efforts began in 1989. Services provided include physical and speech therapy and classroom aides or special education teachers to modify a student's lessons.
"We just started to build in options for kids so that if they wanted to, they could attend their home schools," said Irene Paonessa, who retired as director of the school system's special education program a few months ago. "We just thought we should bring services to the neighborhood schools instead of pulling kids out of schools."
The idea was so popular, and so well-executed, people moved to Anne Arundel County from as far away as Florida and California, she said. The idea also was a hit with teachers.
"Six years ago I was happy as a lark," said one veteran special education teacher, who asked that her name not be used. "We called it integration, and we began teaching special education students in their home schools. We were one of the first areas in the state to do it, and we did it gradually, so we didn't have the fuss you see in other school districts.
"The ideas look good on paper," she added.
In six years, her in-school time to plan lessons dropped from 3 1/2 hours a week to one hour a week because there's no one to watch her students, she said.
Frequently, her teaching assistant must accompany students to "regular" classrooms and work with them there, leaving her alone with at least eight other children. Sometimes, when she's ill, there is no substitute teacher. On those days a teaching assistant does her job.
To show how ill-prepared neighborhood schools were to receive the special students, she noted make shift wheelchair ramps, or ramps located far from handicapped students' classrooms. Special education centers have those and other amenities to make it easier to care for the students, the teacher said.
"Not every school has a room set aside for diapering or personal care where there's hot running water to bathe the children, a room where diapering can be done with privacy, and they should," she said. "I'm very much in favor of inclusion -- if it's done right."
Phyllis Bellotte recalls her decision to send her son Sam, who has Down syndrome, to Annapolis High School three years ago as part of the inclusion program. Until then, Sam attended Central Special School, one of the county's three special education centers.