At the back entrance of Friendly High School, buses unload students who are in wheelchairs and on crutches. With flying fingers and gutteral sounds, a group of deaf students catch up on the latest gossip. Meanwhile, other preparations for a typical school day begin at this untypical school in southern Prince George's County.
This is one of three high schools in the county with staff and courses for handicapped students, and the only one that can accommodate the deaf, as well as the physically disabled. Among the 2,000 students enrolled there are 26 deaf students, some of whom need the assistance of interpreters, and 23 students with other handicaps.
Most of the hearing-impaired students at Friendly said they attended public elementary and middle schools in the county together.
Along with its regular curriculum, the school offers physical therapy to develop muscles and occupational therapy to help students develop the manual dexterity to use keyboards. It also provides speech therapy for improvement of verbal skills and vocabulary, and physical education adapted to the students' handicaps.
In the northern part of the county, Eleanor Roosevelt High School has accommodations only for hearing-impaired students -- it currently has 15 enrolled -- and Parkdale High School serves 14 orthopedically handicapped students.
Friendly has two teachers and several interpreters who translate in sign language while the teachers lecture. A separate staff of teachers and teacher aides works with orthopedically handicapped students.
Interpreters follow students to their classes throughout the day, if needed -- a service that is offered in high schools in other suburban Maryland counties. The students say they have come to rely on the help.
Without the interpreters, Friendly senior Brian Spellman said, he has to read teachers' lips, refer to written instructions, or ask schoolmates or teachers for extra help.
When an interpreter is not available, "I don't get angry if it happens for one day, because I can pick up some things," he said. "But if it happens for a long time, I do get angry."
Without the help, said ninth-grader Aaron Reed, he has trouble understanding what is going on in class.
Friendly has also become a center for students to find other support services, school officials said.
"We have a really good program," said Barbara Gladys, a hearing resource teacher who came to Friendly in 1976, the year before the first interpreters were hired. "The regular teachers are very tuned in to the needs of the hearing-impaired."
"Mainstreaming" of the handicapped students into the regular curriculum has had several benefits, principal James Buffington said: "It's good for the handicapped and the nonhandicapped. It's kids learning about kids, and it's an amazing thing to watch."
Teachers in classes without interpreters say they do their best to accommodate the hearing-impaired students without slowing down the rest of the class.
Thaxton Ethridge, who has one deaf student in his energy and transportation class -- otherwise known as metal shop -- said he was "prepared to write the day's assignment and use a lot of eye contact" when the first deaf student was assigned to his class.
But "the student I have does understand most things," he said. "When he doesn't, I take him by the hand and show him."
R. J. Harry Meehan, the English coordinator at Friendly, has one hearing-impaired student in each of his three classes. "I have no problem with sharing the podium with the interpreter," he said, but "sometimes I forget they are there and I talk too fast."
And when there is no interpreter, he concedes, it can cause confusion.
"Some kids have more trouble than others," he said. In previous years, when interpreters were not always provided, "I stood in front of the student and had a lot of written material."
Brian Porter, public affairs officer at the Prince George's County Board of Education, said that private and public schools compete for the small number of qualified persons to work with the hearing-impaired and the handicapped.
"There is a shortage of teachers nationally . . . [and] a shortage of people trained as interpreters who can work full time and part time," he said.
"It's a demanding job and it requires full-time placement," Porter said. "It's unfortunate, because we do have a lot of people who need the services."
Friendly and other schools instituted their programs for the handicapped after legislation was passed in 1976 requiring every student have a "right to the least restrictive environment in education," the hearing resources teacher, Gladys, said. "They had the right to go to public school."
The legislation also said "that every student had the right to have education be accessible," she noted, meaning that "people in wheelchairs had [the right to] ramps to the buildings, and deaf students had the right to interpreters." Prince George's hired its first interpreters the next year.
Parents of hearing-impaired children in Prince George's County now can enroll them in a county program as early as age 2.
"The decision to attend private schools or public schools is really up to the parents and the administration of the school they wish their children to attend," Gladys said.
"An IEP [individual education program] is set up and the child usually follows that route," either with an education conducted largely in sign language, or using the oral approach. That includes sign language, lip reading and use of mechanical aids such as textbooks, charts and other material.
Schools in the Washington area that serve hearing-impaired students include Gallaudet College, the Model Secondary School for the Deaf and Kendall Elementary School in Washington, and Maryland state schools for the deaf in Frederick and Columbia.