As soon as the first chords of "Pomp and Circumstance" wrapped their way around the hearts of the people in the cafeteria at Cedar Lane School, the tears started falling.
Families and teachers watched the school's nine graduates make their way through the processional - some in wheelchairs, others with painfully halting steps - and considered the bittersweet mood of the moment.
Sweet because many of Howard County's most severely disabled students are never expected to wear a graduation gown and tasseled cap. And bitter because most of those who do will never go on to college or the military or a well-paying career, leaving parents and caregivers with a renewed sense of responsibility and worry.
For many of the disabled and profoundly challenged children, Cedar Lane has been the only school they have ever known.
"On this, our last day at Cedar Lane, I don't know how to say good-bye," said Julia Oursler, whose daughter Erika, 21, who uses a wheelchair, has been in the care of Cedar Lane staff for 16 years. "But I do know how to say thank you. ... Every child who comes through these doors is given the best Cedar Lane has to offer."
Soon, Cedar Lane will be able to offer its needy population even more.
Two more graduating classes will occupy the small, outdated building on the campus of Harper's Choice Middle School. But in August 2004, a new, $10.9 million Cedar Lane is scheduled to open.
The adults who work every day with children with multiple needs are thrilled at the prospect. "I'm ecstatic," said middle school teacher Marilyn Gold. "It's going to make life so much easier."
The halls of Cedar Lane School are littered with bulky equipment, vital for the needs of the students it serves.
Along one wall, a row of walkers, wheelchairs and pull-wagons. Along another, a cluster of tall feeding tubes.
Because there's not enough storage space for the many tools the students use, maneuvering the hallways with a child on a stretcher-like vehicle is difficult, and possibly unsafe.
And it isn't just the hallways that are crowded.
Marilyn Gold's 450-square- foot class is cluttered with cubbies, a computer, mats and pillows for her six students, two storage closets and another small, portable storage unit, two desks for Gold and her two assistants, a changing table, a closet, a sink and a bathroom.
That's just along the perimeter. The middle of the classroom has the students' work table with at least three adaptive chairs strewn around it.
"It is a lot of stuff," Gold said. "It can be a logistical nightmare."
Parents at Thursday's graduation had to line the back and side walls of the cafeteria, because with more graduating students than ever before - many in equipment with wheels the size of end tables - there was little room for all the cheering, sobbing guests.
As school enrollment has surged in Howard County, the population at Cedar Lane has also grown - from about 57 students to 121 over the past eight years.
Principal Nick Girardi said many families with severely disabled children have moved to Howard County because of its reputation with special education students. But much of the growth can also be attributed to medical advances.
"In 1980, the medical world was not sophisticated enough to keep children who had severe birth disabilities alive," Girardi said. "Now, more kids are surviving who could have died. Or the ones who could have been in institutions, they're now here, which is a good thing."
Except for one very important fact: The 22-year-old building was designed for students with "mild to moderate disabilities," the children who have been integrated into "regular" public schools during the past decade.
Many of today's Cedar Lane students are not toilet-trained and cannot feed themselves. Many have severe brain damage, mental retardation, cerebral palsy or autism. Some exhibit self-abusive behavior. Others are partially blind, deaf or both.
"This building was made for a population of children who used to be able to sit in desks and chairs," Girardi said. "We're quite the opposite now."
For years, the staff has made do. But it's gotten increasingly harder.
"A major issue for us is respect for the dignity of our kids," Girardi said.
Because the bathrooms are too small, diapering is done on a changing table in the corner of classrooms, with only a hospital-like curtain to shield the child being changed from classmates. And the bathrooms are large enough for only one adult, when it often takes two teachers to help a child in a wheelchair.
And with no large rooms besides the cafeteria to use on regular school days, getting the students the exercise and physical therapy they need is challenging - usually relegated to only about two hours a day, to accommodate the labor-intensive lunch shifts.
"The new building will have a multipurpose room and a gymnasium," Girardi said.
It will also have a 2,000- square-foot health room, as opposed to the converted classroom less than half that size used now, and many more bathrooms - in nearly every room, including the gym and cafeteria - that are four times the current size, with space for changing tables and two adult aides.
Superintendent John R. O'Rourke, who spoke at this year's graduation - said that spirit is what makes Cedar Lane School successful. Not the spacious storage closets or the size of the bathrooms.
"Education is the Lord's work, and I have to tell you," he said, "Cedar Lane is the Lord's place."