'They Accept Me For Who I Am'
On a recent fall day, Katie Maunder and seven of her 9th grade classmates are sitting in front of a slide show about swamp life. Two students are bent over, taking notes, and another is helping with the projector.
What isn't obvious is that all of the students in the class are legally blind, and the ones taking notes are using small portable machines capable of recording information in Braille.
Katie, 14, and her peers are among the thousands of students who, for one reason or another, attend private schools that cater specifically to youngsters with disabilities. Despite the passage in 1975 of the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Act, ordering that all states guarantee students with disabilities a "free, appropriate public education," public schools can't always meet the needs of every student covered by the law. So, in cases such as Katie's, the local public school district picks up the cost of a private education.
Katie now attends the Overbrook School for the Blind here, at a cost of $38,000 a year. Katie's move to Overbrook was relatively easy—public school officials agreed with her parents that she should attend the private school. But such "private placements" are often expensive, and they have been the source of much tension and many lawsuits pitting parents against districts over the past 25 years.
A bubbly, bright girl who moved with her family to the United States from England in 1994, Katie was first enrolled in public school in Moorestown, Pa. She was in the 3rd grade at the time, and had only mild difficulties in adjusting to her mainstream school.
Katie's problems began compounding, however, in the 6th grade, when she was excluded from classes such as sewing, wood shop, and visual computers, said her mother, Trish Maunder. Instead of attending those classes with her peers, Katie was assigned to a study hall where she said she would sit and do nothing.
"I tried so hard to not be a procrastinator, so I would finish up my homework the night before. So when I got to school, I really had nothing to do," Katie recalled. Katie said she was also starting to have problems with some of the other students. "Some of the kids used to taunt me for being different," she said.
That scenario is typical, according to Cheryl Stewart, the secondary school director at Overbrook. In elementary school, she said, students are much more accepting and willing to help out, but that changes as students reach middle school and start forming cliques. "Junior high kids are so unstable themselves that if you are different, they are going to go after you," Ms. Stewart said.
Life improved dramatically for Katie when her parents and public school officials decided that it would be better for her to leave the 3,600-student Moorestown public schools. Katie described her first day at Overbrook, in the beginning of her 7th grade year in 1998, as "one of the best days I've ever had."
Her schedule of classes now consists of global studies, science, pre-algebra, choir, bell choir, mobility, gym, daily living skills, physical therapy, occupational therapy, and voice lessons. She also participates in cheerleading and has a boyfriend, who left Overbrook at the beginning of this school year to attend a public high school.
And Katie's social abilities have blossomed, according to her mother, whose view is echoed by a teacher and the director of the school.
Katie herself said she has more friends now than she did at her old school. "They accept me for who I am," she said.
Not for Everyone
All of the 202 students at the visually stunning, 100-year-old school were placed there by their school districts, which pay for their tuition. Modern updates to the campus include heated pipes under the sidewalks to melt ice in the winter.
Technology is also an essential part of many Overbrook students' days. For instance, after the slide show on swamps, Katie and her classmates turn to their own personal computers to write down five facts they learned about life in such an environment. Katie's hands move deftly between her keyboard and a small Braille display adjacent to the keyboard that spits out the contents of the screen in bumpy Braille type. Her workstation also includes a scanner on which she can place a book and listen to it through the voice-reader program on her computer. Another computer program allows her to translate text into Braille, if that is her preference.
Though, by all accounts, Katie Maunder appears to be thriving at Overbrook, Bernadette Kappen, the school's director, admits that a private school placement is not right for everyone.
"In education, you wish it didn't have to be an either-or situation; that it has to be a special school, or it has to be a public school," Ms. Kappen said.
Vol. 20, Issue 14, Page 29