School's unusual mission Education: At St. Elizabeth in Baltimore, the goal is to make its students self-sufficient. Many must overcome combinations of disabilities.

July 01, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Katrina Spears will work in a cafeteria. Quan Harris is helping in a day care center. Brian Lovell is a landscaper.

It's the annual ritual after leaving school, but with a difference.

These recent graduates of St. Elizabeth School on Argonne Drive in Baltimore are emotionally disabled or intellectually limited, yet all 11 have lined up jobs or job training.

They join such former classmates as Eric J. Rawlings, 23, a licensed barber and one of 55 alumni who since 1990 have begun in area businesses and agencies, helped in adjusting to their jobs by adult service agencies after intensive preparation at school.

Eric wanted to be a barber in his father John's shop, Master Cuts, on Greenmount Avenue. "I wanted to take after my father and make people look good," he said.

But he barely could read because of severe learning disabilities. For three years, St. Elizabeth teachers encouraged him as he worked in classes, home study and with individual tutoring. Eric logged 2,300 hours in work study. Three times he took the required state barber examination and failed.

However, he kept at it, so much so that he became the class valedictorian in 1994. "Everybody at the school prayed for him when he took the state test again," John Rawlings said.

Three weeks after graduation, Eric passed the examination and became a barber.

"This is a good trade," said Eric, who showed a deft touch with clippers and comb on Ihsan Cornish's hair the other day.

"People ask for me," he said. "I cut a lot of kids, some adults, some women. Regular cuts, fades, high tops. Lots of teen-agers do drugs. I feel better doing this."

Ihsan, 15, had stopped by for a regular cut. As always, he insisted on Eric's chair. "Friends told me he cuts good. I've been back seven or eight times."

St. Elizabeth, on a hilltop in Ednor Gardens near Memorial Stadium, is unusual in its mission to its students.

They are adolescents and young people from age 11 to 21, many with combinations of disabilities other than physical ones.

"We see more and more kids with more and more multiple problems," said Christine Manlove, principal for nine years. "But we're here to prepare the students for adult life."

"We've placed more than 90 percent of graduates in jobs since 1990," Manlove said. Many do well.

Nineteen of St. Elizabeth's students are so severely disabled that, if the day school didn't exist, they would have to be placed in residential institutions out of state. Serving them here saves Maryland $1.5 million each year, said state Department of Education officials.

Many St. Elizabeth students come from schools serving overlapping clientele -- Forbush at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, Hannah More, Kennedy Krieger, Villa Maria and the Children's Guild, as well as area public schools.

The challenges at St. Elizabeth are daunting.

Of 117 students this past term, 41 had a single diagnosis of mental retardation; 13 were mentally retarded and emotionally disturbed; 34 were emotionally disturbed with IQs in the 70s and 80s (borderline intellectual functioning).

Eleven had "pervasive developmental disorders" including autism, and 18 had IQs in the 70s to 80s with learning or speech/language disability.

But difficult challenges are the heritage of the Franciscan Sisters of Baltimore, owners and operators of the school.

Manlove said the order's founder, Mother Mary Francis, pledged originally in England that the sisters would work in "the smallest corner of the Lord's vineyard," meaning tasks that others declined. In 1881, five Franciscan sisters arrived to operate a black orphanage, which they did until the 1950s.

In 1961, the sisters saw a new opportunity: the needs of retarded adolescents. They opened the school in the wing of the motherhouse on Ellerslie Avenue. More recently, St. Elizabeth began serving young people with unique combinations of emotional and behavioral difficulties.

"We don't have the mission of a Catholic school," Manlove said. "Our goal is to educate people with special needs, not to proselytize."

Students take no courses in religion and do not attend religious services. Students are Christian, Jewish, Muslim and of no religious orientation. They are referred by local educational agencies and the state.

Neither the Archdiocese of Baltimore nor Associated Catholic Charities funds the school. Parents pay no tuition.

State and local governments cover tuition. The Franciscan Sisters and private donors provide other support. Only recently has the school asked foundations and corporations for help in an expansion.

In September, the school begins a new year with some long-awaited new space. Frank A. Gunther Jr., a veteran civic fund-raiser, and Sister Ellen Carr have assisted the expansion.

Students will find a new science laboratory, domestic science lab, computer lab, expanded kitchen and classrooms. For the first time, students won't be using the nearby motherhouse.

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