Small class, big accomplishment

Graduates: Three pupils reach a special milestone at Gateway School.

June 26, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

With much pomp and circumstance, they held a commencement yesterday at Gateway School in Northwest Baltimore. And for only three graduates.

The pomp: robes and mortarboards, processions and recessions, songs and honors for the graduates, camera-toting parents, balloons, more than a few tears of joy.

The circumstance: One graduate, Darius Roberts, 10, was honored for having learned to control his emotions and to read a few words. Kevin Thomas, 11, was praised for overcoming the turmoil of a rare disorder that causes him to eat compulsively.

The third and oldest graduate, Mark Egan, almost 12, was pronounced ready for the rough and tumble of a public middle school, so successfully has he navigated seven years at the private school for children with language disabilities.

Early each summer, as the school year ends, Gateway honors its graduates, youths who are ready for the next phase of their education. They are special education children who can't be accommodated by public schools, which pay their tuition at Gateway under federal laws that guarantee a public education for all handicapped children until they are age 21.

Maryland and local school districts paid $107 million last year for the "nonpublic placement" of children such as Darius, Kevin and Mark. Yesterday, their teachers and parents said the money hadn't been wasted.

Such children are often lost in the cracks of education, and their parents sometimes have to fight fiercely to loosen the grip of public educators on their children.

"It's a matter of convincing the public school people that they can't meet the needs of these children," said Jill Berie, educational director of Gateway, which is operated by the 78-year-old nonprofit Hearing and Speech Agency of Baltimore.

"In the case of Darius, for example, the public schools simply didn't have the manpower to provide all the services he needs."

Those services - including teachers, therapists, psychologists and audiologists - are expensive. A year costs $40,000 and up at schools such as Gateway, and into six figures for a child with multiple disabilities.

Darius needed physical support to move about during his graduation, but he never lost his winning smile. At 2 1/2 , he was given a diagnosis of autism, a developmental disability that affects communication and behavior, but he didn't land at Gateway from Baltimore schools until he was 7.

"At first, all he did was yell and grab things," said Jody McAlpin, who taught Darius for three years. "He had no language skills at all."

Today, Darius has some speech and knows a few written words. He's moving to another private school that takes older children. (Gateway serves children ages 3 through 11.)

"I want him to learn life skills, like what a red light means and how to prepare his own meals," said Darius' mother, Karen Franklin.

Franklin and Kevin's mother, Crystal Greene, are both nurses, and both said they had to struggle with public school authorities for the right to transfer their children to Gateway at public expense.

Kevin has a rare disorder, Prader-Willi Syndrome, that gives him a constant sense of hunger and the emotional problems that accompany the disorder.

"I have to keep the food under lock and key," said Greene, whose son also will move to another private school after his graduation, "but he's doing so much better."

In the ceremony, Roxanne Chambers, the teacher of Kevin and Darius, praised Kevin for controlling his emotions. "He's doing a marvelous job of using words and talking about his feelings," she said.

Mark, who turns 12 this summer, "is a great example of what can happen with a lot of effort by a lot of people," said Berie. Of the three graduates, he's the one ready for a regular public school if that's the route chosen by his parents.

With the symptoms of autism, Mark has been at Gateway since he was 4. "The work is pretty much done here," said Mark's father, William Egan. "It's hard to convey this ... but Mark's within striking distance of an independent, productive, satisfying life, but we worry about the rough and tumble of a big middle school."

After donning their robes and hoods yesterday, Mark and Kevin, who is known at Gateway for fashionable dress, ducked into the bathroom to see themselves in the mirror. Each boy received an award for accomplishments and attributes (as did every one of Gateway's 49 students), and each participated with his classmates in a musical presentation.

Mark's class, seven boys taught by Pat Wieczynski in Room 221, sang "I Believe I Can Fly" ("I believe I can touch the sky"). There was hardly a voice on key and little sense of rhythm. But the boys had memorized the song, an accomplishment to be proud of.

Then the three graduates walked into the audience and presented their parents with tiger lily plants and hugs. The tiger represents the "ferociousness of the effort it takes to succeed at Gateway," said Chambers. "The lily flower is to remind us of our children."

Commencement concluded with the singing of the school song: "We love you so, but we have to go. So long, farewell Gateway School."

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