Adam, who has severe neurological and behavior problems that interfere with learning, made little progress during his first two years at the Glenbrook Day School in Rockville, his teachers recall.
He continued to kick, scream and bite the instructors, and in his fits of rage, he would sometimes fling his food tray across the room. He also had trouble speaking coherently, saying things like " 'The meat loaf is half-a-day,' " one teacher remembered.
Then two years ago, Glenbrook's staff decided to try something different. They placed Adam in a classroom alone with teacher Julia Morgan, who blocked the windows with poster board and duct tape, turned off the overhead lights and began using a penlight and several small objects and pictures to teach Adam colors and numbers. The idea was to get Adam to concentrate by blocking out sensory stimuli.
Very slowly, he began to control his emotions and learn, his teacher said, and today, 10-year-old Adam spends a good part of his day in a regular classroom with other disabled children.
He has learned to tell his teachers and parents when life is getting out of control and he needs to spend some time alone, Morgan said. And he can speak in complete sentences.
"[When] his class went to buy pumpkins next to a Roy Rogers [restaurant,]" Morgan said. "He started to cry and said, 'I want to have lunch at Roy Rogers.' Last year, he would have looked at Roy Rogers and hit me. Instead, when his teacher told him, 'Your mother takes you to Roy Rogers, but we eat at school,' he stopped crying and they went back to school."
Adam is one of more than 1,500 students who have studied at Glenbrook, a school for children to age 12 with mental, emotional and physical handicaps. Until this fall, the school did not have a permanent home and had to borrow space from several Montgomery County churches.
The 24-year-old school dedicated its new home on Seven Locks Road in Rockville recently in an hour-long ceremony attended by several local politicians and some former students. A group of Glenbrook children sang in a song: "If I can do anything, you can do anything, too."
That song could be the theme of Philip's life.
Philip, 13, is slightly brain-damaged, and when he started at Glenbrook, then called Christ Child Church Center, at age 4, he could hardly talk, had coordination problems and would sit in a chair with his back to other students, his teachers recalled.
After years of therapy and special instruction, he now goes rock-climbing, hikes and rides a bike. He also attends a special class at Tilden Intermediate School in Rockville.
"He went on his first date the other night to a school dance," said Philip's father proudly.
The school opened in 1961 in a church classroom with one student, two teachers and a $12,000-a-year budget. Since then, about 1,200 of its more than 1,500 students have gone on to regular public schools; the rest have been placed in other programs for the handicapped, founder and director Shari Gelman said.
This year, Glenbrook has 145 students, more than 50 staff members and a $1.5 million budget. It is housed in the former Georgetown Hill Elementary School, a building with gyms, therapy rooms, a playground and cheerful classrooms with "Sesame Street" characters on the walls and cubbyholes for knapsacks and lunch bags.
The elementary school was closed because of declining enrollment several years ago and Glenbrook won the right to lease it from the county for $50,000 a year.
Gelman said it has cost another $400,000 to renovate the building and add ramps and lavatories for handicapped students -- a large amount for a school that operates on donations, fund raising, tuition and county education dollars.
Public school systems place handicapped students at Glenbrook and pay their tuition, but the school also has some private students. Students who are multiply handicapped usually are sent to Glenbrook because the public schools cannot serve them.
About a third of Glenbrook's students come from Montgomery County, while others are sent from other counties in Maryland and from Virginia and the District.
Hiawatha Fountain, associate superintendent for special and alternative education with Montgomery County public schools, said it costs about $12,000 a year for each student at Glenbrook, several thousand dollars more than it would cost to educate a handicapped student in a public school.
But Fountain said the cost of housing a special education program, such as the one at Glenbrook, is not included in the school system's figure. If it were, he said, the school system would spend about as much as at Glenbrook for a multiply handicapped youngster.
Glenbrook is "a cost effective way of educating children," he said.
The school is different from other schools for the handicapped in that it designs a program for each child and places that child in a class of six to eight students with several teachers, administrators said. At Glenbrook, a child is exposed to physical therapy, language development and academic instruction.
There are also courses on social skills and what it means to become a teen-ager. Students can join Boy Scout or Girl Scout troops.
In addition to special education teachers, Glenbrook's staff includes occupational therapists, speech therapists, clinical social workers, a music therapist and a recreation specialist.
On a recent afternoon, one class was practicing "time-out," a technique of getting hyperactive or misbehaving children to relax.
"Can everyone be like a rag doll?" a teacher asked a group of children who sat on the floor in a circle. "Let our hands fly," said the teacher, and one of the boys began to pound his hands against the floor. "No, not too hard," she told him.
In another class, students looked at a story they had written about the dedication of the school earlier that day. Each student had written a line in the story, which had been taped to the blackboard.
Christie, a blond with a Cabbage Patch Kids knapsack, wrote, "I liked seeing all the people and watching the flag go up the pole." Andrew contributed the line: "Our new flag looks nice on the pole."
Said Dorothy Burger, the mother of an 11-year-old who was in a special education class in public school in Fairfax County before coming to Glenbrook: "The teachers here look at the children as individuals. They make the program work for the child rather than have the child fit into the program."
Adam's mother, Hinda Dankner, said the school has "done a marvelous job of making him feel comfortable in the world."
One former student, a 25-year-old Bethesda resident, said that the school gave him a new chance at life.
"A long time ago, people didn't think I would graduate from high school, let alone college," said the man, who came to the school at age 8 with a learning disability and behavior problems. He graduated from Glenbrook at age 12.
In December he will graduate from the University of Maryland with a degree in athletic training.
And although he is still struggling with his learning disability -- it will have taken him six years to graduate from college -- he said he plans to apply to graduate school in hopes of becoming a physical therapist.
"Mrs. Gelman thinks I'm one of her success stories," he said, "but . . . I'm still proving things to myself."