Stephanie Reed knew that her son, Shawn, deserved better than what he endured day after day, year after year at C. Melvin Sharpe Health School in Northwest Washington.

Shawn, who has cerebral palsy and is mentally retarded, cannot walk or talk and is unable to feed himself. Sharpe's mission is to help children such as Shawn, special-education students who have severe disabilities. But after nearly a decade at the school, he was not progressing.

Doctors not affiliated with the D.C. public school system had found that he might improve with the right kind of attention. For years, however, the school system denied Shawn physical and speech therapy, despite his mother's complaints and worries.

It was only after a pair of public interest lawyers took on Shawn's case that he began to get the help he needed. A federal judge found that the District had denied Shawn the care he was entitled to get and ordered the school system last summer to pay for his placement in a private school.

Now 15, Shawn has shown progress since his transfer in September to St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a special-education school in Alexandria, his mother said. But like most other D.C. children who have ended up at St. Coletta in recent years, Shawn and his family had to fight hard to put him there.

For years, the D.C. school system has defended its special-education programs and gone to great lengths to keep Shawn and students like him, rather than send them to outside schools, at the city's expense. On the other side, some parents and advocates have contended that the public schools were unable to handle some of the most demanding cases.

One front in the battle looks to be changing. In the summer of 2006, St. Coletta plans to move into a new building in Southeast and become a D.C. charter school.

Just more than 2,000 D.C. students are sent to private day schools in and around Washington, said MaryLee Phelps, the District's interim executive director of special education. Some are sent with the blessing of their old schools. But others -- like Shawn -- go only after their cases are heard in administrative hearings or federal courtrooms.

The number of St. Coletta students from the District has risen steadily the past several years, and D.C. children make up nearly 70 percent of St. Coletta's 168 students. Many are from Southeast, where the $31 million school is being built near the old D.C. General Hospital. The school's other students come from around the region, traveling from as far as Damascus and Leesburg.

With St. Coletta's shift to charter school status, parents will be able to apply directly to the school, as they would any other charter school. St. Coletta will evaluate the needs of prospective students and decide who is admitted.

The D.C. government funds charter schools directly, but the D.C. schools have reached an agreement to ensure that St. Coletta's costs, which typically exceed the set rates, are fully covered. In its new facility, St. Coletta will have enough room to take in an additional 100 students. Even so, a waiting list is possible if the school emerges as a popular alternative.

Shawn needed to be moved from Sharpe a long time ago, his family and advocates said.

Other parents and their legal advocates have raised similar complaints about the school on 13th Street NW. In one case, the city faces a lawsuit stemming from the death of a 13-year-old girl.

Cindy Alvarado was sent home from Sharpe in September 2003 with a note from a nurse saying that she needed urgent medical care. She died soon afterward from an intestinal blockage that could have been treated successfully, according to a review by University Legal Services, a watchdog group.

At any given time, Sharpe must tend to students who use a ventilator, for example, or who have other medical or physical needs, such as speech or occupational therapy. How those demands fit into a child's education is a point of disagreement among educators, advocates and parents.

The most recent description of the city's special-education services, published in 2003, describes Sharpe as a "therapeutic environment" where medical and educational goals "are fully integrated on a daily basis."

But Sharpe's principal, LaGrande Lewis, said in an interview that the school had evolved into something else. "This is not a therapeutic center," she said.

Sharpe struggles with such students as Shawn, who need more attention than the school is structured to provide, said Lewis, adding, "I'm not saying I agree with it, but at the school level, I can't change that."

Phelps said schools work from an "educational model" while parents, doctors, therapists and attorneys often come at these questions from a "medical model."

"That's where some of the conflict and differences of opinion come in," Phelps said.

Shawn's attorneys said it is impossible to separate his educational needs from his physical and medical needs. For a child like Shawn, whose mental development is on par with an infant's, education is teaching him how to signal that he's hungry by pointing to an image of food, or developing his dexterity and flexibility to move himself around in his wheelchair and, perhaps, someday on his feet without constant assistance.

But for seven years at Sharpe, according to court records, he received no physical therapy. And for five years, he received no speech and language therapy.

At St. Coletta, therapy is an essential part of Shawn's education, said Sharon B. Raimo, the school's executive director.

"No one says he's going to be able to do reading, writing and arithmetic," Raimo said. "That's not what we're teaching. We're teaching functional skills."

Sharpe and St. Coletta are strikingly different.

Sharpe, with 187 students, ages 3 to 21, is a placid place. During a visit, classrooms had as few as three pupils and no more than nine. Besides the teacher, an aide or two was often present. Some children were attended to; others appeared to be waiting for attention.

St. Coletta hums with energy and activity. At times during a visit, it seemed as though every child was being attended to by a teacher or therapist. And the school costs: as much as $54,000 per student, compared with the $33,000 it costs the city to educate a child at Sharpe. St. Coletta is paid based on the needs of the students and the services the school provides; Sharpe is funded based on a standard per-pupil formula.

More than half of St. Coletta's students have individual aides. The result is that a typical classroom of 10 children will have a teacher and four or five aides, along with therapists who assist.

Sharpe's Lewis said that with fewer therapists and an average ratio of one teacher and one aide for every eight to 10 students, the school cannot match St. Coletta in providing individual attention.

Shawn requires one-on-one attention. He needs help even in simple cutting or painting exercises, according to his occupational therapist at St. Coletta, Jan Pascual. But for his first few months at St. Coletta, he rebuffed the hand-over-hand assistance he needed, Pascual recalled. "He would pull his arms away from you," she said.

Now, he accepts such help, Pascual said. And when he is working with someone or when his name is called, he responds and makes eye contact with the person, something he did not do early on.

"If I'm singing to him, he'll be looking at me directly in the eyes," she said. "He's more alert in the classroom. Just say there's a sound or he hears someone talking -- he'll look in that direction."

Those signs often leave Pascual wondering where Shawn's progress could have been today. "Imagine," she said, "if he had had therapy for a few years."

In fact, it might be too late to teach him some skills. Chewing and swallowing, for example, are especially hard to teach this far along, and in Shawn's case might never be learned, Pascual said. It is the sort of lost opportunity that pains Stephanie Reed, 33, a single mother of three.

Shawn wound up at St. Coletta thanks largely to the intervention of Deborah Ann Smith, who was a Children's Hospital social worker, and Tracy L. Goodman and Laura N. Rinaldi of the Children's Law Center, who help parents advocate for their children's medical needs.

The attorneys tried to prod Sharpe into resuming therapy. When those efforts yielded little, Shawn's mother appealed to the school system but lost. School officials maintained that they were exercising their best professional judgment and that they were working in the best interests of Shawn.

The case then headed to U.S. District Court, where Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly delivered a decision in August, writing: "The Court finds that his educational program at Sharpe has been inadequate."

Devoting so much of her attention to Shawn has not been easy on Reed, who said she hasn't worked for about three years because few jobs would afford her the flexibility she needs to care for Shawn and his siblings, Leshawndon, 13, and Rayshawn, 12. "There have been times when I thought I couldn't do it," she said. "Shawn needs so much attention. . . . There were times when I would sit here and cry. But then he would do something and make me smile."

Shawn's progress at St. Coletta, recorded in his "What I Did Today" notebook and in school correspondences to his mother, can seem modest. "Shawn was observed," one entry reads, "pushing a ball back and forth with a classmate with occasional hand over hand assistance."

But that is what gives Stephanie Reed hope.

Shawn Reed, 15, works on his communication skills with occupational therapist Jan Pascual at St. Coletta of Greater Washington school in Alexandria. Shawn plays with his sister Leshawndon, 13, at their home in the District. When Shawn is working with someone, he now responds, says his occupational therapist at St. Coletta.