Troubled children find learning haven

Jefferson School spurs `wonderful changes' with special support

Carroll County

January 12, 2001|By Michelle Yoffee-Beard | Michelle Yoffee-Beard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A year ago, the prospects of 10-year-old Caleb O'Leary, who was born with heart and other birth defects, succeeding in school were bleak.

Caleb, who has undergone several traumatic operations, was uncomfortable at his school and was often depressed. His life at school and at home was difficult, his parents, John and Christine O'Leary, recalled.

That has changed since Caleb began attending Jefferson School at Granite House, which opened in the fall in Westminster. The school is the first of its kind in Carroll County and operates as part of Sheppard Pratt Health System, a private, nonprofit health care system that provides special education and mental health services to adults and children.

"Since Caleb has been coming here, our family has seen dramatic and wonderful changes," said Christine O'Leary. "He now feels safe enough to learn. Up until now, we've had a terrible time. The public school system tried the best that they could, but they just couldn't take care of his needs. What they did was just not enough, no matter how hard they tried."

Licensed to serve up to 16 children, ages 6 to 14, the school operates with the support of Carroll County Public Schools and the State Department of Education. Children are referred to the school after an identification and review process that begins in the public school system, according to Jefferson and Carroll school officials.

The school is at Washington Heights Medical Center on Washington Road and operates in space shared with Granite House, a nonprofit provider of behavioral health services. The school is a satellite of Jefferson School's program in Frederick County, a program that serves up to 80 children in residential treatment and day school. That program has served many Carroll County students over the years, officials said.

Jefferson School provides a higher level of special education and mental health services than typically available in public schools, educators said. The school provides special education services in individual, group and family therapy, and crisis interven- tion and psychiatric management services.

"Kids who are referred here are typically students who have significant emotional problems that interfered with peer interactions in school," said Nancy Dowdy, school principal. "These students may not necessarily be performing below grade level, but they do have a very serious emotional need."

A typical school day includes hands-on activities and academics in smaller classrooms. Each student has an individualized plan that encompasses many aspects of everyday life such as socialization, organized exercise and daily routines. Students also receive therapy, counseling and psychiatric services.

"The overall goal is to help the students get to the point emotionally that they are available for learning in the classroom, so that they can eventually return to a less-restrictive setting," said Eric Levine, educational director for Jefferson School.

"It's a win-win for everyone involved," Levine said. "The kids are learning, the family is finally breathing a sigh of relief and the Jefferson School is making great efforts to ensure each child is able to transition to a normal way of life."

Susan German, a liaison for Carroll County Public Schools, is an advocate of Jefferson School and its programs. She provides student referrals and follows up throughout their tenure at the school.

"We have been very pleased with our relationship with the school," German said. "If students have special educational needs that are too great and can't be met within the public school system, then we need to look for services someplace else so that we can provide a continuum of education. Every student needs to be provided with free and appropriate education."

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