Getting an equal chance

Transition: A new school gives disabled students instruction unavailable elsewhere and equips them to join the work force.

September 13, 1999|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

In years past, Christopher Overman found school to be an emotional challenge. But now, he's having the school-year opening of his 14-year-old life.

Chris is enrolled this year in the just-opened Kennedy Krieger High School for students with learning, emotional, behavioral and physical disabilities.

"It's easy to get along with everybody. There haven't been any fights. It's low impact," Chris said of his first week at the North Baltimore school.

One of about 50 students in a pioneering program that emphasizes employment skills, Chris is classified as having emotional challenges.

Behavior changes

His father, Steven Overman, 41, a city bus diesel mechanic, says he has noticed a change in his son.

Having "nothing but bad luck" and behavioral problems in other schools, his son "has no trouble getting up in the morning and doesn't stop talking about what happened till we get home," Overman said.

Chris' favorite class is in the career and technology center, where students learn to work with robotics, electronics and computers, and get individualized instruction.

The way students' behavior is monitored is a far cry from isolated, boiler-plate treatment they received in other schools.

Program goals

Jobs and independence are the ultimate goals, says Andrew P. Hubner, the school's principal, adding that the school hopes students can find employment as waiters, computer workers, receptionists, construction workers and in similar jobs.

"This is a whole untapped work force that nobody wants to employ," Hubner said of students with disabilities, who have generally been underemployed. "It's a tough sell."

To turn that perception around, the school's director of business partnerships, Gabrielle Miller, scouts for possible employers and tries to get the school's "students out and ready to enter the workplace."

Miller said it took about seven years to go from concept to receiving a portion of the state's $24 million in federal School-to-Work money to opening the doors.

Comprehensive

The 90-year-old former Children's Hospital building in the 3800 block of Greenspring Ave. was restored to house the school, and school officials say the facility is the first and most comprehensive of its kind in the state.

The state-regulated and licensed school is called a "nonpublic" school, but the $57,000 annual tuition -- a figure Hubner expects to go down as more students enroll -- is paid by school districts that cannot offer a level of special education appropriate for the students.

Students come from Baltimore and nearby counties, including Harford, Howard and Anne Arundel.

"It's not about cost," Miller said.

"It's about equal access."

Hubner said, "These are intelligent people."

One unidentified severely handicapped boy told his mother that it was the first time that nobody made fun of him when he started school.

Career plans

Jasper Baker, 14, of Baltimore studies English, math and science, keyboarding and takes a class about different careers.

The learning-disabled boy is particularly excited about an Internet instruction game, which, he says, "teaches us how to bank and about the stock market."

He has a part-time job cooking and cleaning for senior residents at Oakcrest Village, he said.

Jasper, who is a big basketball fan, said that one day, he might like to be a professional chef or perhaps join the Marines -- if it doesn't interfere with a basketball career.

"We're like regular people who need help with their situation in behavior, reading or spelling," Jasper said.

"We all get along here."

Pub Date: 9/13/99

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