Public System Form Partnership to Serve Pupils With Asperger
Karen Nitkin, The Baltimore Sun, September 11, 2005
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son, now in seventh grade, could read at a third-grade level
when he was 3 years old. His favorite bedtime story when he was
4 was his mother's college astronomy book.
But the boy also had trouble interacting with others. "He'll
just barrel through a crowd, bump into people and not say excuse
me," said Oliver, who asked that her son's name not be used.
For the past three years, the boy, diagnosed with Asperger
Syndrome, a higher-functioning form of autism, has been
attending the Kennedy Krieger School in Baltimore.
Now, he is one several students with Asperger Syndrome who have
enrolled at the Norbel School as part of a new partnership
between the county school system and the private school in
Elkridge, which teaches youngsters in prekindergarten through
grade 12 who have learning and/or language disabilities.
To qualify for placement at Norbel, the public school pupils in
the program had to be in fifth through seventh grades, have an
average to gifted IQ and have been showing a lack of success
with individual education plans that had been put in place for
The idea is for the pupils to attend Norbel for 1 1/2 to two
years, long enough to amass a toolbox of skills that will allow
them to cope in public school and in the real world, said Eric
Isselhardt, Norbel's headmaster.
Students with Asperger tend to be highly intelligent and do well
at school, but they have problems with social interactions and
with transitioning from one activity to another, Isselhardt
The curriculum at Norbel, which focuses on human relationship
skills, seemed ideal for this sort of learner, he said. The
school already was enrolling students with Asperger Syndrome,
said Kryz Renzi, Norbel's marketing coordinator.
In Carmen Beecher and Eileen Grossman's seventh-grade classroom,
for example, the daily schedule written on the front board
showed that 45 minutes would be devoted to what the school calls
During that time, the teachers and students would focus on
social relationships, decision-making and other nonacademic
skills necessary for getting along in life. Even before the 45-
minute session started, Grossman informed the pupils that they
had five minutes to finish what they were doing and clean up
Then she handed out sheets of paper with lists of "feeling
words," including apologetic, shocked, indifferent and
disgusted. As part of the lesson, Beecher discussed actions and
relationships - how a child might react if a brother lost a
prized leather jacket, or how a grandmother would feel if a
grandchild failed to show up to help carry groceries.
Some students need to learn how to "get" a joke, since they
don't pick up on the inflections and visual cues that make
something funny. Students learn about phrases such as "buffalo
wings" and "cute as a button," which are hard for students with
Aspberger, who tend to be very highly literal, to understand.
All of this is part of the standard curriculum at Norbel, a
school with a student-to-staff- ratio of 6 to 1.
Oliver said she and her husband learned about Norbel through Ron
Caplan, who is in charge of community and alternative programs
for Howard County's Department of Special Education. It was
clear that the boy no longer needed to be at Kennedy Krieger,
but he was not quite ready for public school.
"His autism has been very well-addressed, and he was now in a
position where he had many more coping skills socially and he
could be in a less restricted environment with kids who are
functioning socially on a higher level," Oliver said.
She said even this early in the school year, she is very happy
with the program. She recalled that when her son was in third
grade, at a nonpublic special-education facility. The class was
asked to read a passage, and then say what they thought the
author was thinking when he wrote the story.
The boy's reply was that he could not possibly know what the
author was thinking.
"The wonderful thing about Norbel," the boy's mother said, "is
that they understand that. That question would not be marked
wrong and used against him. The question would be asked in a
very different way."
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