Crossing border for schools Mexico: A Westminster family is moving to Puerto Vallarta because the parents say the education offered there is better for their two adopted daughters, who are disabled.

August 18, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare and Anne Haddad | Mary Gail Hare and Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Families frequently move to Carroll County for schools that are touted as being among the best in the state. But one Westminster family is going against the trend, moving to Mexico, where they say schools offer more for their disabled children.

After nine months living in Puerto Vallarta, a western coastal city, Patricia V. and John E. Wagner returned here in June and put their Main Street home up for sale. They plan to return to Mexico in time for the opening of school.

Leaving their five adult children and their grandchildren will be a sacrifice, the couple said. But when they saw how well their 5-year-old daughter adjusted to Mexican schools, they had little choice.

The Wagners adopted as infants two biological sisters, Jenny, 5, and Angela, 2 1/2 . The girls have multiple disabilities and developmental delays.

Angela has not attended Carroll schools, but Jenny participated in the Infant and Toddlers Program at Winfield Elementary for two years.

"We didn't see it as a positive," said Mrs. Wagner, 46. "She wasn't moving forward behaviorly. She just seemed to pick up all the negatives."

Jenny's doctors and therapists said she would make more progress if she were in a school with children who were not disabled. At 3, Jenny was young for the program, but she entered Head Start at William Winchester in February 1995.

For a child who did not deal well with strangers and transition, the move was a disaster, Mrs. Wagner said.

"Any problem, they would send her out of the room or block her off in the classroom so she could see other kids but not interact with them," said Mr. Wagner, 64.

"It wasn't the place for her, and we should have insisted on a private school," said Mrs. Wagner.

About 27 Carroll County students attend private, state-approved special education schools, if a team of their teachers, therapists and parents decide their needs can't be met in the county. The tuition -- sometimes as much as $100,000 per child -- is paid for out of the regular operating budget, said Harry Fogle, supervisor of special education.

For the current fiscal year, $1.6 million is budgeted for such schools. About $776,000 of that is federal money. The federal contribution has shrunk in recent years as local schools pick up the increasing expense.

And while the Wagners are moving out of Carroll, others are moving to the county with children who have special needs. Each year for the past decade, about 100 new special education students are identified, Fogle said.

Some are moving here as special education students, but others are already in the system whose needs become apparent later.

Out of 25,309 students, Carroll has 3,452 who receive special education. Most of them have learning or speech and language disabilities.

"The school system must provide a fair and appropriate education, as opposed to what a parent might perceive as the best option for the child," Fogle said. "It's not that we don't want the best for every student, but we have to do the best we can with the resources we have."

State figures that track special education expenses show that in 1994, the last year for which figures are available, Carroll spent an average of $389 per special education student above the regular per-pupil cost. The state average was $536.

"That tells me, I think, that we're doing an awful lot with a little bit of money," Fogle said.

Carroll County school officials said they may not discuss specific children's cases. But Fogle said he knows of no case in which a Carroll special-education student did not receive all services stipulated by a legally proscribed Individual Education Plan team that includes the parents.

Still, there are times when parents do not agree with the rest of the team, and they may ask for a mediator through the state Office of Administrative Hearings, or for a judge from that office to hear the case.

If they are still not satisfied, they may appeal to Circuit Court, but no family has done that since at least 1985, Fogle said. Six have asked for the administrative law judge, and a mediator has resolved five cases.

Mr. Wagner, a missionary with the Church of God, has frequently traveled to Mexico on preaching assignments. Last fall, he took the family along.

The Wagners were surprised at what a developing country could offer their daughter.

"There was no bureaucracy," Mrs. Wagner said. "They saw a kid with a problem and said, 'Let's deal with it.' What became obvious is there is a different mind-set. It is no big deal that she is different. She is Jenny, not an American kid with disabilities."

Jenny hears only Spanish in the classroom, but her teacher has assured the Wagners their daughter understands, is learning and conversing.

Although Mr. Wagner could continue working with churches in the United States, he and his wife will join a growing American community in Puerto Vallarta.

"We have found in Mexico more understanding, with more acceptance, love and attention for children than anywhere up here," he said. "The U.S. has all the laws in place for the disabled but not the compassion," she said.

The family will return periodically to see medical specialists and visit their families, but, for the most part, they also are satisfied with health care in Mexico.

"The doctors have the education but not our technology," said Mrs. Wagner. "There are many doctors in the U.S. who were trained in Mexico, including two Carroll pediatricians Jenny sees. The only difference is in Mexico, they don't have the equipment."

Pub Date: 8/18/96

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