Now that his long-awaited institution is off and running, Walter Fraizer, principal of the Loveville School, is eager to empty it.
The school, which just opened, enrolls mentally handicapped children, teen-agers and young adults from northern St. Mary's County from 18 months to 21 years of age. Some have a variety of physical disabilities, including problems with speech and hand coordination.
Ending the isolation and alienation of handicapped people by integrating them into the community is the primary goal of the center, situated about 50 miles south of Washington. It is one of the first in Maryland to operate with that philosophy, Fraizer said.
During a 6 1/2-hour day, special education teachers and assistants work with the students according to their level of development, Fraizer said.
Students begin with "a tremendous amount of language training," along with basic cognitive lessons--such as identifying shapes, colors, numbers, sounds with toys, illustrations and steady drills--that will help develop academic skills, Fraizer added.
Students of all ages work on such skills as tying shoes, dressing, and grooming, as well as cooking, laundry and other household duties.
Older students are taught about positive work attitudes and behavior, such as the importance of being on time and looking for more to do during idle moments.
In addition, students from Banneker Elementary School, 100 yards away, are being paired with Loveville students to go to lunch together on a "buddy system." With other children to model, the student learns better, Loveville officials said.
But the system also has an added benefit for nonhandicapped students, according to Sudha K. Haley, county school information director.
"It's all a sensitivity training, so other kids can accept them," she said. "That's the whole point with integration. You do that with cultures, you do that with races, and now we're doing it with the handicapped."
Teachers and aides also work with the school's 23 students in different types of physical therapy, either in a work-out room or a three-foot-deep hydrotherapy pool.
By next month, Loveville adminstrators plan to be taking students down the road to Mattingly's Supermarket, where they will learn how to shop.
"We're getting these kids out into the real world," Fraizer said. "We're teaching them how to read enough to buy groceries. . . . Instead of using play money to buy play food in a play store, they are going to a real store, they'll use real money, buy real food, and they'll cook it."
Loveville is one of the first schools in Maryland devoted specifically to community-oriented learning programs, Fraizer said.
Montgomery County has applied for federal grants to institute programs similar to Loveville's, he said.
The University of Maryland has one such program, where students attend classes at the Duckworth Center in Beltsville.
Before the $2.2 million Loveville center opened in northern St. Mary's, some students endured two-hour bus rides each way to get to the county's first special education center, Green Holly, near Leonardtown, Haley said.
Loveville's students eventually shift to the vocational center at Green Holly, she said, to finish their job training in horticulture, wood and metal work or custodial work.
Recently, Mike, 13, one of five students in a recent prevocational class at Loveville, was practicing the fine points of vacuuming.
"We teach them what most people would consider--Hey Mike! You gotta wind that cord up there, guy!--survival skills," said one teacher, Ronald Chesek, reaching down to show Mike how to make the cord coil on the machine's handle.
Mike said he was excited by the prospect of working on a real job, and looking forward to further janitorial training.
"He's our star pupil,"said instructor Prudence Griffin. Mike smiled and blushed.
Shaping the students' attitudes, getting them to master skills needed to get by on their own and get along with people in social transactions are keys to a student's success, Fraizer said, and for those, integration is critical.
"The thing that mades a mentally handicapped person stand out is the way they look, the way they act. They have really poor social skills," he said, because traditionally they are segregated thoughout their lives from people of higher intelligence.
Fraizer expects so-called "normal" people to learn from his students.
"These children are normal, that's it," he said. "They have handicaps that affect their ability to do things. They may look strange, they may act strange, but once you get to know them, once you get comfortable with them, then it hits you: these are just normal people."