School plans to move to Creswell

Highlands seeks to build campus on Route 543 site

Serves learning-disabled pupils

8-year-old institution would grow to 120 youths

March 28, 2004|By Lane Harvey Brown | Lane Harvey Brown,SUN STAFF

The Highlands School, which teaches children with learning disabilities from Harford, Cecil and Baltimore counties, is planning to move out of its rooms in an old school building in Street and build a small campus in Creswell.

The new school, on 18 acres of the former Boniface farm on Route 543, across from the Eastern Christian College campus, would serve about 120 children from early elementary to middle-school age. The school is to open in the fall of 2006.

"It's a really exciting time," said educational director Beth Maahs-Hoagberg. "I guess I never dreamed that we would get to this point."

Maahs-Hoagberg was one of a handful of Harford County women who teamed up more than a decade ago with the goal of opening a school to help children with learning problems such as attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, dyslexia and language-processing difficulties.

The school opened in 1996 with six pupils in grades four through eight, said state Del. Joanne S. Parrott, a Republican representing northern Harford County. Parrott, also a school founder, began working with the school while she was a County Council member. She said the hope is to expand the program to serve kindergarten through eighth grade.

"We've truly been blessed with support," Parrott said. "It's just rather incredible."

The Highlands School Foundation was formed about a year ago, she said, to begin the task of raising $5.5 million.

Wayne Tapscott, vice president of the foundation, said the group has grown in a year to about two dozen members and has accumulated about $600,000 in pledges.

"It's an ambitious project, but a good cause," said Tapscott, an owner of HARCO Auto Park in Aberdeen. "We're really a pretty unknown cause at this point."

The school would be built on part of a 41-acre agricultural parcel on Creswell Road, north of Interstate 95. The land is owned by Charles and Linda Whitby of Bel Air, according to county zoning records.

A special zoning exception is required for the school's use of the land, said John Gessner, a Bel Air lawyer who is representing the parties in a zoning hearing scheduled for April 21.

Plans for the school include a 25,000-square-foot building with 13 classrooms, a library, art and music rooms, a gym, a computer lab and a courtyard, according to the school's Web site.

Tapscott, who has a grown son who attended Highlands one summer during middle school, said having a family member with a learning disability led him to rally for the school from its beginning. "It's certainly something I have a heart for because of that," he said of the school.

That is the case for many other supporters, he said.

Maahs-Hoagberg said her daughter's learning difficulties spurred her interest in forming a school closer to home for children who needed help.

"I fought for her education for many years," she said. In the process, she earned a master's degree in reading and language disabilities.

Other schools in northeastern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania that offer similar programs are West Nottingham Academy in Cecil County for grades nine through 12 and Janus School in Lancaster, Pa., for grades one through 12.

Maahs-Hoagberg said each of Highlands' classes has 10 to 12 pupils, with intensive smaller sessions of two or three pupils for reading and math. Tuition is $17,850 a year.

She said one goal that sets the school apart is reintegrating the pupils into public or private mainstream schools.

"We consider ourselves a remedial school. The average stay is two to three years," she said.

When the school started, in several rooms of the former Highland Elementary School in Street, Maahs-Hoagberg said, organizers had plenty of room for a half-dozen children and access to the playground, gym and library. Now, with 48 children in that building, which also houses a community services agency and senior center, things are more cramped.

"Now that we've outgrown our space, I can't even fathom what it's going to be like" in the new school, she said.

Cynthia Hutchins, who lives near the proposed school site on Cullum Road, said she had not heard about the project. Many residents in the area are focused on a proposed homeless shelter a few miles south in Riverside, she said.

"I don't know that much about it," she said of the Highlands project. "It sounds like a good idea."

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