School proposal sparks anger among parents

Plan would move learning-disabled to Fort Smallwood

'They thought the worst'

January 14, 2001|By Stephanie Desmon | Stephanie Desmon,SUN STAFF

Just two years ago, the Anne Arundel County school board unveiled a nearly $8 million renovated, doubled-in-size Fort Smallwood Elementary School in Pasadena with room for 611 youngsters.

But only 324 pupils attend classes on the remote peninsula campus, and the school district's nine-year projections don't call for many more.

Ambitious plans for a golf-course community with houses and townhomes are on hold, possibly dead, meaning hundreds of students who may have moved in never materialized.

And students won't be coming from nearby Jacobsville Elementary because the school district has found other ways to relieve crowding there.

Instead of leaving paid-for seats empty, school system officials plan to move up to 24 severely learning-disabled students to Fort Smallwood. More than 40 parents attended an at-times tense meeting at the school last week, most angered because what they called potentially violent pupils could be walking the same corridors as their children.

"The crux of the matter to me is what might happen," said a father of three sons who would not give his name. Another parent worried that one of the mentally disabled children could "act out" near hers, endangering him.

"Many of the parents were very upset about the idea," said Brenda Reid, president of Fort Smallwood's PTA. "As soon as they said anything about relocating anyone here, they thought the worst."

But officials tried to ease their worries, explaining that the students who could be assigned to Fort Smallwood were not emotionally disturbed or even severely retarded.

They are pupils who have serious learning problems, some of whom have average or even above-average intelligence, who require all-day intensive attention to break through.

A half-dozen of the students attend private school, in some cases with tens of thousands of dollars in tuition picked up by the Anne Arundel County schools because no public program can handle their needs. This new program at Fort Smallwood would, said Tom Conner, a special education official.

"I think you're going to be fine, and we're going to work very, very hard to make sure it's fine," said Thomas W. Rhoades, director of program planning for the school system. "These are not diabolical, harmful students.

"We're not trying to put one over on you. We're just trying to get a home for some kids in a school that has some space. ... We want them not to feel unwelcome."

If there is still space after the new children are enrolled, some of it could be used as offices for resource teachers in the elementary schools that feed into Chesapeake High.

Children with serious learning disabilities or mental problems often cannot be taught in their neighborhood schools.

The school system, instead, clusters children with like difficulties together to offer them the best specialized resources. For example, many hearing-impaired students attend Shipley's Choice Elementary School in Millersville, and a group of emotionally disturbed children attend Glendale Elementary School in Glen Burnie.

Only if they cannot create an appropriate program will the school system pay for private school.

Parents wanted assurance last week that if Fort Smallwood started to fill closer to capacity, it would be the children with disabilities who would be moved to another school.

Officials hope to assign students from the northern and eastern parts of the county to Fort Smallwood, to cut down on travel time for the youngsters. "We've done this many times, very successfully," Conner said.

Some parents at the meeting became more comfortable with the move, particularly after being assured that the students would not be violent.

"You've convinced me," Bonnie Tauber told officials.

Maybe Fort Smallwood's pupils will learn something by having these students in their midst, said Reid, the PTA president.

"I think it was an excellent meeting and it calmed a lot of fears," Reid, a mother of 8-year-old twin girls, said afterward. "I think it could be a good thing for our school."

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