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Focused on special students

Those at Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center measure progress in small but important steps.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 20, 2002

Those at Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center measure progress in small but important steps.

PINELLAS PARK -- The Code Red emergency sounded at 1:40 p.m. on the first day of school.

Teachers at Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center responded instantly, clearing hallways and closing classroom doors. They spoke softy to keep their students calm.

Within seconds, the school's four nurses arrived at the home economics room, where a 16-year-old girl was having a seizure. They monitored her vital signs and talked with paramedics by telephone.

The nurses murmured encouragement to the girl as her body convulsed. One massaged her arms. One placed a hand on her shoulder and one rested a hand on her hip.

Sirens wailed. Three paramedics wheeled a stretcher into the classroom. Within minutes, the girl was headed to the hospital where her parents waited. Teachers and staff members exhaled as word spread through the school that she would be fine.

The Code Red emergency may have caught a different school off guard, but the staff at Nina Harris is accustomed to critical situations. The school is one of two Pinellas County public schools dedicated exclusively to mentally and physically handicapped students. It and Paul B. Stephens Exceptional Education Center in Clearwater serve about 600 special needs children.

The quick response was more remarkable because it was in a brand-new building. Built on the school's old site at 6000 70th Ave. N, the $17-million facility was completed in time for summer school, but was new to most students and teachers Aug. 7, the first day of school.

The students, who are classified as educable, trainable or profoundly mentally handicapped, range in age from 3 to 22. They have moderate to severe physical disabilities including vision and hearing impairments, muscular dystrophy and closed head injuries. Many experienced birth trauma or were born with chromosomal abnormalities. Some, considered medically fragile, use ventilators to breathe, are fed through tubes and require round-the-clock nursing care.

The school tends to students' physical needs, but its primary goal is to educate them, principal Sue Rea said. Her 145-member staff includes 46 teachers and 61 associate teachers whose goal is to help students achieve as much independence as possible.

"Some of these students will never learn to read or write or do math," said Jan Rouse, assistant superintendent for exceptional student education. "Their progress is in very small increments. It's sometimes hard to perceive. Being able to tie a shoe or feed oneself is an enormous accomplishment."

The new school was built with special needs in mind. It is about four times the size of the old building. Wider hallways accommodate wheelchairs. Handrails help students who can walk navigate hallways. Natural light streams in from skylights. Bright red, cool teal and funky purple replace drab institutional tones in elementary, middle and high school wings, where children are grouped by age rather than disability.

A reconfigured playground outfitted with special swings and a surface compatible with wheelchairs stretches behind the wings so students are near age-appropriate equipment. An outdoor therapy pool features three chair lifts that help students get in and out of the water.

A new clinic has an updated oxygen delivery system. Phones in every classroom allow teachers to communicate with each other and with the front office. Bathrooms and water fountains in the classrooms save instructional time because teachers no longer have to take children into hallways.

The improvements make it possible for the school to meet its ultimate goal -- preparing students for life after school, said guidance counsellor Paige Baitinger.

"We have to think long-term," she said, explaining that teachers can offer help to students while they're at school, but they must also think about where they'll go when they leave.

On average, 22 students graduate from Nina Harris each year, Baitinger said. About five or six get jobs, largely as a result of preparation they receive beginning in middle school. A job training program puts high school students on site in Starkey Elementary School's cafeteria and in the kitchen and dining room at St. Anthony's Hospital.

About 75 percent of the students won't get jobs. Many are too low functioning to qualify for minimum-wage positions, Baitinger said. Their best-case scenario is an adult day program, but many facilities accept only those who are toilet trained and can feed themselves. That's why even incremental progress is so crucial, she said.

Sue Clair, who has a master's degree in special education, teaches elementary-level children with autism. One of their biggest challenges, she said, is learning to feed themselves.

"You do it hand-over-hand until they eventually get the idea," she said. "It took all year for two of them to almost be able to feed themselves. I hope that by the end of this year, they'll be able to do it."

The six students in her class have trouble communicating. They become frustrated easily and sometimes have behavior problems. She and her two teaching associates try to handle things, but sometimes they have to call one of the school's two behavior specialists.

Christie L'Eon, who teaches high school students who are profoundly mentally handicapped, dedicates the first part of her day to taking roll. Her eight students, several of whom are visually and hearing impaired, press buttons on a computer that says their names.

After roll call, they work on class projects. Two students remove tabs from aluminum cans and run the cans through a crusher. The money they made from the recycled aluminum last year financed a trip to Mahaffey Theater.

Helping mentally handicapped students achieve a level of independence carries a hefty price. For the 2002-03 school year the district will spend an average of $19,000 for each student. The district spends about $6,000 for a regular education student.

"It's a very expensive way to educate kids, but if they're going to learn, it's the only way," said Rea, the principal. "It's not these kids' fault they're the way they are. They deserve what every other child deserves. Whatever it takes to deliver a quality program is what they need to have.

"We don't work miracles. But we try."

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