School for Contemporary Education to expand Facility helps those with mental disabilities

April 15, 1997|By Edward Lee | Edward Lee,SUN STAFF

For two years, the School for Contemporary Education has helped children hurdle the obstacles of emotional and mental disabilities as Howard County's only private school offering such services.

It has gone about that job from its North Laurel campus quietly and without fanfare -- an image that could change with the roar of a bulldozer as the school prepares a major expansion.

The school has filed for permits to build a 20,000-square-foot, two-story addition to the rear of its existing facility on the Howard County side of Whiskey Bottom Road, just east of U.S. 1.

School officials are looking forward to the $2.6 million expansion project -- which could be under construction as early as June -- increasing the school's size and student body by 50 percent.

"This is very important to us," said Artha Groves, director of the school. "It will improve the quality of our program, and we will be able to use the space."

The school now serves 113 students in grades three through 12. The students are from eight Maryland counties and the District of Columbia. Groves said the school receives more than 25 referrals a month, most of whom are turned away because of limited space.

The proposed addition should help. It will add seven classrooms to its current 13, increasing student capacity to about 170. Also, a gymnasium and office space will be included.

All of the pupils have emotional and mental disabilities such as attention deficit disorder and mild retardation.

Most lag behind their peers academically, and usually have been easy targets for taunting and even violence, said Judy Miller, the school's principal.

"Some of the students who come here had to fail first," she said. "They're not socializing, they're withdrawn, they're the victims of other kids who have teased them."

"They're really hesitant to trust," she said.

Parents can sometimes arrive with similar scars, according to Sharnet Chavis, the school's counseling/family services supervisor.

"Most of them are pretty pleased that their child is being successful for the first time," she said. "But occasionally, you get parents who had to fight so long and so hard to get their child the extra assistance that they need that they're still in that fighting mode."

Average tuition per student is $24,000 -- which is paid by the state and the local public health or children's services agencies that referred the child.

After children are referred to the school by a local agency, an evaluation process -- usually taking six months to complete -- determines whether a child requires specific treatment that local schools and public agencies cannot provide, Groves said.

New students are placed in classrooms -- each containing no more than nine pupils and a teacher and assistant -- according to their skill levels. Parents receive daily reports for a minimum of two weeks, giving details on their child's progress.

Aside from the usual focus on academics, the school also tries to help students understand how to be accountable for their actions. One technique is a point system that awards each child points for good behavior and academic achievement -- points that can be exchanged for prizes.

The other system is a vocational program for the high school students, who shadow or apprentice under the direction of several local businesses and agencies.

Employers that have participated include the Fairland Aquatics Center, Giant, and Wood Market.

Seventeen-year-old Michelle -- school officials asked that students be identified only by their first names -- said she has enjoyed answering phones and doing telemarketing for the Morningside House of Laurel, a retirement community and assisted-living facility.

"I get hands-on experience," Michelle said. "That's the best part."

Nancy Whipple, activities director for Morningside, said she is impressed by Michelle's work and that of another student.

"They're very professional," she said. "I really hope they continue this program."

The School for Contemporary Education was founded by Dr. E. Lakin Phillips, who established the first school in Annandale, Va. in 1967.

Three years later, a branch was established in Ellicott City.

Nine years later, officials moved the Ellicott City school to Baltimore, where it stayed for 15 years before it opened its doors in North Laurel in 1995.

A study conducted when the school was in Baltimore showed that 85 percent of the students had graduated or returned to their original schools in an average of three years, Groves said.

School officials are soliciting contributions from local businesses and foundations to help with the cost of the addition. Students are getting involved -- the class that raises the most pennies earns a pizza party.

Last week, students in Dan Draper's social studies class were rolling their third jar of pennies into rolls and confident about their chances.

"That's going to be us," said Charles, 17. "No doubt about it."

"I'm glad," said Ed, 16. "We've been waiting for a long time to have our own gym, and we can have more students here, too."

Draper said he is not surprised by the students' enthusiasm.

"I think it gives them a sense of ownership," he said. "They feel like they're contributing to the school."

Groves said she has kept in touch with several graduates, including one boy who invited her to his Eagle Scout ceremony and a young man who owns a home-improvement business and has an infant daughter.

For school officials, progress can be judged by a simple facial expression: a smile.

"For a lot of the students who have come in, school has not been a successful place or a fun place," Miller said. "But when you see the joy on their faces of doing something successful, it's very gratifying."

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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