Providing a Harbour for students

Special-ed school to break ground in Owings Mills

October 22, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

For more than two years, the Harbour School's Baltimore County campus has been tucked into the most unlikely place -- a corporate office park on the Rolling Road corridor between Security Boulevard and Windsor Mill Road.

The school's 70 students troop past Business Card Express to reach the athletic field, while faculty members sometimes have to dash across the parking lot, depending on which grade they're teaching.

"Most parents, when they pulled up the first time, would say `Ummmm ... ,'" says Esther Adams, the school's curriculum coordinator. "But once they were inside, they saw it was just like any other school."

Well, like any other school with a 3-to-1 student-teacher ratio and a cocker spaniel, Puddin', on hand to greet visitors.

But Harbour School's unorthodox Baltimore County accommodations were intended to be temporary, explains Linda J. Jacobs, the founder and executive director of this nonpublic school for learning-disabled children, most of whom have been placed at Harbour by local school districts.

"From the day we opened, we were looking for a new space," she says. And, finally, they have found it.

Construction began at a site on Dolfield Road in Owings Mills in the summer for a more traditional school building. A ceremonial groundbreaking will be held tomorrow and the $5 million project is expected to be completed in the spring, in time for Harbour School's 20th anniversary.

The plans call for twice the space and a design that will create the feel of a village center, with mock storefronts for the classrooms and streetscape murals on the walls.

Jacobs unfurls the plans in her office, showing how she wants the builder, Leroy Merritt, to create a lighthouse-like entrance for the new school.

"I had to explain to him this was a project he wanted to do. ... They tell me they can't" create the lighthouse effect, she says. "But they can. They just don't know it yet."

A similar philosophy has propelled Jacobs and Harbour through two decades, from its beginnings as a one-room schoolhouse in Arnold with four students and one teacher, to a two-campus nonprofit organization with 221 students and 123 staff members in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties. Tuition for the majority of students -- more than 80 percent in Baltimore County and more than 90 percent in Anne Arundel County -- is paid by their school districts.

"It fills an incredible need," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "The school takes children with special needs and provides them with a career path."

Harbour might be small, but it offers virtually every activity found at public schools: athletic teams, art and music classes, wood shop, a student council, even a prom. And Jacobs -- known as "Dr. J," a nickname she says had more resonance when Julius Erving was playing basketball -- is determined to have a band as well.

"Have you ever seen The Music Man?" she asks, moving through the corridors at a fast clip. "That's what we're going to have -- great uniforms. When we started the athletic program, I told the director, `Let's get them nice uniforms. That way, until they start to play good, they can look good.'"

Alice Laughland, a longtime friend who runs the wood shop on the Baltimore County campus, says of Jacobs: "She's fabulous. She's always telling you that you can do something, even when you think you can't. She does that with everybody."

Jacobs chooses slightly different wording: "Sometimes people don't know what they can do and you have to tell 'em. ... People say, `You must have tremendous patience.' I don't. I'm impatient. These kids don't need patience. They're wonderful."

Jacobs, 60, didn't intend to go into special education when she began teaching 40 years ago. Although she was certified in secondary special education -- and later was told she was the only person in the state to earn that certification the year she graduated from the University of Maryland -- she wanted to teach history.

At her first job, in Howard County's Howard High School, the principal gave her a class with students who had failed history at least once, or special education students the district had expected to drop out.

Jacobs loved the class, if not the school. When she switched to Baltimore County two years later, she wanted another post teaching social studies. The principal made her a deal: Teach special education for one semester and he'd find her a social studies job.

"Well, you can do anything for one semester," Jacobs says. "But, when it was over, I didn't call him and he didn't call me. The rest is history."

She has stayed in the special education field, in one capacity or another, since. After earning her doctorate in 1971, she became the director of special education for Anne Arundel County, then the assistant state superintendent for special education.

She left that post in 1979 in what she describes as "a fit of righteous indignation." She had a testing and consulting firm, Innovative Learning Inc., but no long-term plans.

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