Once-barred student ready for latest education hurdle

Knee operation keeps her at home, but she's on track with lessons

January 31, 1999|By ALICE LUKENS | ALICE LUKENS,SUN STAFF

Danielle Rash, kept out of school for two months in the fall because of a residency dispute, is once again back at home, spending most of her time in her aunt's living room with the family dog, a dachshund named Cookie, a big-screen television and myriad family photographs on the walls.

But this time, Danielle is not bored and depressed, as she was after being expelled from Glenelg High School in mid-October. This time, the school system is providing tutors, two for three hours a week each, so she can keep up with schoolwork while recovering from a knee operation this month.

And hoping no more misfortune will befall her, Danielle, who turned 17 Friday, has one goal and one goal only: to make it through the school year with passing grades.

"I'm doing great," she said last week, hopping around the living room on her one good leg, showing off how, after almost a month at home, she can -- slowly, carefully -- bend her knee 90 degrees. After a pause, she added: "Mentally. Not physically."

That's no small news for a girl who has spent much of the past year feeling depressed. She moved to Woodbine in June to live with her aunt and escape what she described as a troubled home in West Virginia, where she said she had a bad relationship with her stepfather and was failing in school. After being expelled from Glenelg High last fall, she said, she spent much of her time crying in her room.

Even though Danielle's aunt had become her legal guardian, school officials would not grant Danielle a tuition waiver because they said she could not prove that she had moved to Howard County to escape "hardship" in West Virginia. They said she would have to leave or pay $6,570 in out-of-state tuition -- money her family says it could not afford.

In mid-December, after receiving much criticism for their strict residency policy, school officials allowed Danielle back in school. She attended Glenelg for three weeks before the knee operation put her back in the very place she had spent so many hours in the fall: her aunt's living room.

But this time, she said, things are better. She keeps busy with tutoring, homework and physical therapy -- not to mention a 21-year-old boyfriend and her family, to whom she is very close.

"It's better than in class," she said of her tutoring sessions. "They're talking to you and not talking to everybody else."

Danielle, who finished taking exams last week, said she doesn't have to make up the two months she missed and got to use her books during most of her exams. At least one teacher said she would grade her more leniently, Danielle said.

School officials never gave any reason for readmitting Danielle. They have said, for confidentiality reasons, they will not talk about specific students.

But they continue to defend the school system's residency rules. They have said hundreds of students try to get into Howard County schools every year, and if all of them were admitted, it would cost taxpayers more than $3 million annually. If someone requests a tuition waiver because of hardship, they say, they demand written proof of hardship from an official such as a police officer or social service agency.

"Because this is a place where lots of people are trying to come to school, whose parents are not living here, I think it's fair that we say, `Give us some documentation,' " said Estes Lockhart, director of pupil services for Howard County schools. "Otherwise, how could we tell anybody they couldn't come to school here?"

Last year, 676 students applied for tuition waivers and 51 -- less than 8 percent -- were granted, said Patti Caplan, public information officer for the school system.

In response to a Public Information Act request filed by The Sun in December, Lockhart recently provided information about those 51 students. For confidentiality reasons, no names were provided, only information about why the waiver was granted and what documentation was required.

According to Lockhart, 18 students were granted waivers because of the physical or mental condition of a parent, nine because of the incarceration of a parent, six because a parent was dead, and one because of a parent's illness.

Other causes were homelessness (five); abuse (four); abandonment (four); and neglect (one). One was granted a waiver after being placed in Howard County by social services; one was a war refugee; and one was placed here because of a parent's military reassignment.

The documentation included letters from social workers, doctors, ministers, psychiatrists and prison staff members; death certificates; a court order; and confirmations from a halfway house manager, a commanding officer, a hospital and a West Virginia prosecutor.

Danielle said she provided letters from a therapist saying that she came from an "intolerable home situation" in West Virginia, where she lived with her mother and stepfather.

Despite missing so many weeks of school, Danielle said she does not think she is far behind. "There's really no point in being stressed out if you really work hard at it and really study," she said.

Pub Date: 1/31/99

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