Exceptional school has lesson for charters
I knew my friend and former Post colleague Rick Weintraub had a son with learning disabilities. Rick had told me how Philip worked hard, got an education, and eventually became a productive married adult, just like his parents.
Although Philip is the only member of the family ever to land a full-time job at the White House, as a staff aide in the Clinton administration.
What I didn’t know was the role Ivymount, a Montgomery County school I had never heard of, had played in this story. Now I have read Weintraub’s new book , "No Other Place: Ivymount, the First Fifty Years," and wonder if its history might inspire an end to the useless squabbles we are having in this area about public charter schools.
When we reporters mention schools like Ivymount for students with disabilities, it is usually in connection with fights over money. Public school districts are legally required to pay private school tuition for such students if the districts can’t meet their needs. Some public school officials suggest that aggressive parents are ripping them off. Lawyers get involved. It is not a friendly environment.
But the book, edited by Weintraub with assistance from Bonnie Beers and Stephanie deSibour, reveals a different dynamic at the beginning of the era of special education.
When what became Ivymount began in 1960 there were no federal laws requiring schooling that suited the needs of kids with disabilities. Private and public school educators were just beginning to see the untapped potential of many children who up to then had been sent off institutions that were, despite their best efforts, often no better than warehouses.
Public school districts did not then resist, as they often do now, paying for something better. They were delighted to discover the resourceful teachers at Ivymount. They gratefully assigned the children to the assortment of innovative programs then called the Christ Church Child Center, or CCCC. It was and is a private school, but its budget must be approved by government officials.
Weintraub said Ivymount “is a 50-year example of how to start, nurture and build a highly successful quasi-public school. Probably 99 percent of the thousands of students to have attended did so when they were assigned there by local public schools.”
The two administrators who first ran the enterprise, Shari Gelman and Lillian Davis, like the the current director Jan Wintrol, were natural innovators. There was little research to guide them. Equipment and medications were primitive. They did the best with what they had, using taxpayer dollars.
What does that sound like? “In effect,” Weintraub said, “Ivymount was a charter school before we knew about charter schools.”
The school was a boon to the many children whose disabilities were beyond what standard programs were designed for. In the book, language specialist Judy Smith recalled one needy applicant. “One school that dealt with children with learning disabilities had told the parents that they could not program for him because he was blind,” she said. “A school for blind children had told them they could not program for him because of his learning disabilities.”
Ivymount found specialists who could help him. He now works in community services for Montgomery County and provides translation services in Spanish.
The book is full stories of students introduced to productive lives by Ivymount teachers. Weintraub said he sees it as a study of “the value of having dynamic programs outside of, yet intimately linked to, public systems,” not only to help the children but to be “a laboratory for effective programming.”
Montgomery County recently rejected another attempt to start a charter school. Like other suburban districts it seems irked by innovation without county control.
But if the relationship between counties and charter schools was closer, as it has been with Ivymount, maybe creative solutions for other problems, such as education for the gifted, or immigrants, or those who misbehave, could be found.
| January 19, 2011; 6:00 PM ET
Categories: Local Living | Tags: Ivymount, Jan Wintrol, Lillian Davis, No Other Place,, Shari Gelman, education of children with disabilities
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