Student goes from special ed to spot at Poly Canton Middle program starts teen's transition

February 09, 1997|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

Most weekday mornings, James Schmidt is standing in front of Spartan Pizzeria in Highlandtown before 6. He catches a bus across town, then takes the light rail north to Baltimore Polytechnic Institute High School, arriving in time for "coach class," an early morning tutorial.

Schmidt's daily journey is long -- "It usually takes me an hour," he says -- but it is nothing compared with the emotional distance he has already traveled.

In just seven years, the shy, slightly built 15-year-old has come from hospitalization at Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, an 18-month stay at a private residential facility and a stint at a city school for special education students to a place in the freshman class at Poly, the prestigious citywide math and science school.

His progress is a testament to his own fortitude -- and to a program at Canton Middle School that breaks down the isolation of children with special needs by including them in classes with students in general education.

Just being in the classes -- first at Canton and now at Poly -- was a giant first step.

"I wanted to seem normal," says Schmidt, who is no longer classified as a special education student. "I figured if I could get into a regular school and stay there, I could show people I wasn't crazy."

"I knew I had problems, but we all do, right?" he adds.

His ability to articulate his feelings exhilarates his counselor, Bonnie Lushbaugh, Canton Middle's school psychologist.

"The first day I met this child, you could not get near him," says Lushbaugh. "To watch him develop trust -- and be able to show emotion -- is tremendous success."

Schmidt hadn't been in a regular school since third grade, when his condition was diagnosed as emotional disturbance with mood instability, severe anxiety and suicidal tendencies.

He had completed sixth grade at Sharp Leadenhall, a city school in South Baltimore for seriously emotionally disturbed children, when he enrolled at Canton Middle, which was starting an "inclusion" program.

He began classes there in fall 1993.

Academics at Canton Middle "weren't a problem," says Schmidt. Social interactions were. "I was terrible," he acknowledges. "I didn't talk to people."

In his first year at Canton Middle, he brought his lunch every day to the second-floor guidance office to eat with Lushbaugh. Gradually, however, he began eating in the cafeteria with the other students.

The counselor, who continues to see Schmidt informally, says he clearly benefited from "a wider exposure" to students.

Last year, Schmidt passed Poly's entrance exam.

Schmidt is concise in summing up his first months at Poly. "It's difficult," he says of the course work, citing algebra and German as two courses giving him particular problems. He also is the first to acknowledge he is still awkward socially. But he plans to graduate, saying, "I don't like to give up."

And he's not receiving, or asking for, special consideration.

"They treat me just like a normal student, which is the way I like it," he says.

Pub Date: 2/09/97

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