Everywhere one turns at Columbia's Bryant Woods Elementary School, physical education teacher Jane Vacarro has left her mark.
There is the playground, accessible to wheelchairs and one of the first in Maryland specially equipped for disabled children. Vacarro, one of the region's 15 winners this year of the Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher Award, helped design it.
There are students and teachers wearing the school's special sweat togs and headbands, each with Bryant Woods' bear logo. The 42-year-old P.E. teacher had a hand in designing those outfits. And she leads the regular all-school exercises that include staff members and administrators as well as students.
Prominently displayed at Bryant Woods is big flag proclaiming that it is a physical education demonstration elementary school for the state. Four years ago the state picked Bryant Woods to demonstrate new ideas in teaching because Vacarro was there.
"Phys ed should be and can be every child's favorite subject," said Vacarro, an Andover, Mass., native who came to Bryant Woods in 1982 and who has been teaching in Howard County for 15 years. " . . . You have to maintain some level of fitness to lead a normal life . . . . And if you feel real good about yourself, it totally affects your day-to-day existence."
An unusually active school, Bryant Woods sometimes sends all its students outside for the day, on foot or by wheelchair for field trips or to assemble for games designed to teach them math and other skills.
Proud of its tradition of physical fitness, Bryant Woods faces a special challenge: It is the only neighborhood elementary in Howard with orthopedically disabled students bused in from elsewhere. It also is one of two county elementary schools serving students of average or above average intelligence who have learning disabilities.
"Mainstreaming" students at Bryant Woods whose physical limitations have initially set them apart has meant adapting games and equipment, often in very creative ways. Vacarro's disabled students learn to bowl from a wheelchair, using half a tube to guide the ball from their laps. In other games, they use balls with strings attached for easier retrieval.
Physically able children learn to accommodate their classmates, revising the rules of softball, for instance, by throwing to several bases instead of one when a disabled player is at bat.
"It's neat for the regular kids to see them, because they look at kids in wheelchairs and recognize that they can do a lot of the same things," Vacarro said.
A now-legendary graduate of Vacarro's you-can-do-anything instructional philosophy is Katie Gardner, 15, who plays junior varsity lacrosse at Columbia's Wilde Lake High School. After Katie's right leg was amputated above the knee seven years ago, it was Vacarro who taught her how to skate again.
"I probably wouldn't have been so sure of myself and what I wanted to do," the ninth grader said. " . . . . It was fun doing something I thought I couldn't do," she said of her five months of practice with Vacarro.
Teaching at Bryant Woods is "one of those kinds of jobs I wouldn't call a job -- because you get to work with kids," said Vacarro, who has written papers on pediatric rehabilitation that have been published by health journals. "They appreciate what you do. And it's a very rewarding kind of job to look forward to every day."