In touch with the water

Cedar Lane School helps disabled youngsters thrive with aquatic therapy


Chris Jones' slightly constrained body floated peacefully in the heated Cedar Lane School pool while being held in the arms of Jennifer Jacobs. A slight smile was spread across his face.

At first glance it would be hard to tell that Chris, 12, who has cerebral palsy, is also tactile defensive, or overly sensitive to touch. Or that when he first came to Cedar Lane, a public school in Fulton for students ages 3 through 21 with severe physical and mental disabilities, he detested the water.

Now the water relaxes the Ellicott City boy, according to Jacobs, who has been Chris' aquatics instructor since he was 5.

"In 16 years, I've had three or four kids who didn't like the water," said Jacobs, who has worked at the school for the past 16 years as the lead aquatics instructor. "If you want to see them upset, tell them they don't have swimming."

In a time when some school systems have abandoned swimming programs for nondisabled students, the Cedar Lane School community has embraced its pool program.

Jacobs and her two assistants use the pool as a means of physical education, a way to increase mobility, and also as a way to acclimate the special-needs students at Cedar Lane to the water. The class also offers an opportunity for the students to work on dressing and grooming, according to the school's principal, Nicholas Girardi.

Cedar Lane, which, like other county schools, ended its academic year Thursday, has had a water-therapy pool since opening in 1981. Similar programs exist at schools in Montgomery, Prince George's and Baltimore counties, Jacobs said.

When Cedar Lane relocated from Columbia to its current location last fall, it went from a 21,191-gallon pool to one with 57,000 gallons.

The pool, which has a ramp that provides easier access for wheelchair users, is maintained at a toasty 96 degrees, like a warm bath, Jacobs said. It helps relax constrained muscles.

"The warmth reduces the muscle constriction," Jacobs said as she stood in the water with Chris. "You can see his arms relax."

The water also benefits students who have poor muscle tone, according to Jacobs.

"They walk better in water than on land," Jacobs said, adding that some of her students are stiff and jerky when they walk. "One student could barely walk on land. Put her in the water and she could walk 40 minutes."

Ann Zgorski, a Glenelg resident, said she loves the mobility that the pool offers her two children, Amy, 18, and Ben, 14 - both of whom use wheelchairs.

"They are free," said Zgorski. "Their bodies are not sitting in chairs or on the floor. Amy and Ben both don't care to straighten their legs. But in the pool, they drop. Their legs will straighten out, and that is a nice thing to see. It is a relaxation you don't think about. They loosen up."

Zgorski said she is also encouraged by watching other students in the pool.

"Some [students] are actually kicking on their own and learning strokes," she said. "My children don't have that capability, but to see other kids learning and progressing - that is fun to see."

Jacobs said that throughout the years she has been able to teach a handful of students to swim on their own.

Jacobs also noted the benefits of the weekly classes for the students who have never learned to swim.

"When they go to the pool with their families, they are not afraid of the water," Jacobs said.

While Jacobs and her assistants, Cynthia Lloyd and Robert Tyson, work with the students in the pool, a classroom teacher records the students' progress.

On a recent visit, Lori Solberg, an instruction assistant in Chris' class, explained that she recorded how many laps he completed, the types of strokes he was able to complete and the amount of assistance he required.

"After they are done with their laps and strokes, they get to float and relax," Solberg said. "They like it. They expect it. It's a good sign when they have a big smile on their faces."

Zgorski said the instructors are the key to making the class work.

"They know how to deal with the kids," she said. "For my kids, having the same person is calming for them."

Jacobs said she feels like a fish out of water when she's not working in the pool. "It's something I really enjoy," said Jacobs. "That is magnified by the fact that the students love the water. We have very few behavior problems."

Lloyd, who has worked with the program for five years, said the chemistry between the teachers allows for a productive program.

"Jenny's a pool goddess," Lloyd said of Jacobs, adding that Jacobs taught Lloyd's daughter Elizabeth to swim when she attended the school.

Girardi, who recently visited some of his students in the pool, remarked on the benefits of the program. "I'm sure those students are feeling a sense of freedom and accomplishment doing that," said Girardi. "The smiles on their faces [were] exciting to see."

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