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In Baltimore, a Class for the Brain-Injured

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BALTIMORE--Were it not for the students in the class, the scene last week in Room 100 of Brehm's Lane Elementary School here would have been typical of any grade-school classroom. The letters of the alphabet were hung above the blackboard.

The names of the days of the week paraded across a construction-paper banner tacked over the bookcase, and the teacher had written sentences on the blackboard for a lesson on verbs.

But these pupils, ranging in age from 12 to 17, were clearly in a classroom designed for much younger children. And they took part in a lesson that seemed far below their age level and abilities.

"Do fish swim?'' asked the teacher, Bonnie Lushbaugh. "Do desks jump? Do carrots blink?''

The answers came quickly from some, but with agonizing slowness for others.

Both the distinctiveness of the class and the difficulties of the students had a common genesis: traumatic brain injury. For some, the injury may have left a gap in memory or an impairment in their ability to think; for others, perhaps, problems in controlling their emotions or behavior.

In the Brehm's Lane classroom, the Baltimore City Public Schools operates one of the first public-school programs in the country for children who have suffered head injuries.

According to the National Head Injury Foundation, of the 1 million people below the age of 18 who suffer head injuries every year, 165,000 are hospitalized and 16,000 to 20,000 sustain moderate to severe impairments, such as those of the students in Room 100.

Often, such children drop out of school following their accidents, or are mistakenly placed in special-education classes. Sometimes, their problems go undetected for years, experts say.

Filling in Gaps

Four students attend the Brehm's Lane class from 8:30 to 11:30 every morning, and another one comes in the afternoon. Three other students are on a waiting list for the classes, which began in September, said Idalyn Hauss, head of the special-education department in The Upton School, which coordinates the program.

"What we do is a lot of filling in the gaps or cognitive relearning,'' Ms. Hauss said. "The difficult thing is these are kids who, after an injury, look good. So people say, 'You look so good--why can't you do this question?'''

Fourteen-year-old Channelle Collins, for example, said she had trouble remembering the computer skills she had learned in school, and that she could not recall the names of people with familiar faces.

"If I pick up a book, I have to read slowly sometimes,'' said the 9th grader, who was hit by a truck last year.

Demetreus McGregor, 17, was being recruited by University of Maryland football officials before he was injured in October during a high-school football game. He still has trouble with reading and language, but he will soon return to his regular classes, and afternoon tutors will help him with some of his more difficult subjects.

"So far, I'm kind of scared,'' he said. "I'm afraid the work may be too hard for me.''

Because widespread recognition of the range of problems caused by head injuries is relatively recent, the best methods for teaching students recovering from such accidents have not been identified, Ms. Lushbaugh said. For now, she said, "it's trial and error.''

"And it's retraining and repeating and repeating and repeating,'' she added. "Every night for homework, these kids get repetition skills.''

She told of one girl who said she could no longer read. Ms. Lushbaugh asked the girl to say the letters out loud. "P-L-A-N-T, plant,'' the girl said, the sound of spoken letters having suddenly jogged her memory.

"Today, she volunteered to read three sentences,'' Ms. Lushbaugh said.

'Right Timing'

The Baltimore district's head-injury program is the latest addition to several programs for students with health problems. Others include tutoring for pupils confined to home or in a hospital, services for students with epilepsy, and services for chronically health-impaired children, such as those with sickle-cell anemia.

All of the programs operate under the umbrella of The Upton School, whose principal, Frances Bateson, said that her own daughter suffered a brain injury some years ago. At that time, Ms. Bateson noted, educational services for head-injured children were "non-existent.''

"Now, the timing is right,'' she added.

At the urging of the head-injury foundation, the U.S. Education Department's office of special education and rehabilitative services has made the needs of the head-injured a major funding priority. According to Ellen Liberti, a program officer in the office's national institute for disabilities and rehabilitation research, $2.9 million in grants for new research in that area is being made available by the department this year.

Still, several experts said, it may be years before the research translates into educational programs for brain-injured children.

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