Cedar Lane Principal Nicholas P. Girardi rumpled his brow as he opened a door in the school's new home in Fulton on a recent morning. He seemed puzzled as he walked through the dark room. Then he checked a sign hanging outside, and his face brightened.
"No wonder I didn't recognize it!" Girardi said. "It's a testing room! We've never had a testing room before."
Indeed, the nearly $20 million campus, scheduled to open in a little more than a week, has a host of new features that parents and staff members at the school for children with severe disabilities once only dreamed about. There are the little things, such as the separate sinks in the health room for nurses to clean the gastrointestinal tubes that some children rely on for nourishment. And there are the big improvements, such the larger water therapy tank and wider hallways.
"Everything will be new," Girardi said.
Perhaps the most significant feature is the direct connection that officials hope the school will provide between Cedar Lane students, who are 3 to 21 years old, and their peers at adjacent schools who don't have disabilities.
"We want to make sure that the opportunities for interaction are done in a tailored and meaningful way and not just for the sake of doing them," said Bob Seipel, president of the Cedar Lane PTA. "We have the commitment of the school system."
The school sits behind Lime Kiln Middle School and is connected to its cafeteria. Lime Kiln's computer room and a classroom that will probably be used for its gifted and talented students are housed in Cedar Lane. Fulton Elementary School and Reservoir High School are next door.
The 100,000-square-foot Cedar Lane is expected to open Aug. 29 with about 95 students, though it can accommodate 120. An open house is scheduled for Aug. 28.
Construction of Cedar Lane's new facility prompted intense debate among special education parents several years ago. Parents and staff members at the school had long complained that the old building, across the street from Harper's Choice Middle School, was crowded and did not meet the special needs of the district's most challenging population. The narrow hallways were filled with students' wheelchairs and other equipment. Teachers had to change students' diapers in their classrooms.
The Howard County Board of Education approved renovating that building in 1999, but developers soon realized that it would cost almost as much to upgrade the school as it would to build a larger one in its place. In 2003, state education officials froze their portion of the funding. In an effort to increase the number of special education students in regular classrooms, the state said it would no longer build separate, freestanding schools for children with disabilities.
Some parents lobbied to keep the school; others said the children would be better off mainstreamed into the county's other schools.
County school officials resolved the problem by designing a facility that combines Cedar Lane and Lime Kiln's campuses.
"We look at it as an endorsement of the program," said Seipel, who along with most parents has not been inside the new school, yet. "That's what's extremely important to the parents, that the current program with its focus and intensity for our students is maintained."
The plan appeased state officials, who then released funding. After two years of planning and construction, workers raced last week to finish laying tile in Cedar Lane's high school wing and prepare classrooms for the grand opening.
Girardi said he thinks the school will open on time even if he doesn't "sleep at night."
Pennie Close, school secretary, has spent the summer filling work orders and deciding with staff members every detail of the school, from the color of the walls and tile to the type of furniture.
"It's neat to go from a 2-D to a 3-D," Close said.
Girardi said he is most excited about the new opportunities for students. Cedar Lane will have three teachers devoted solely to developing inclusion programs between the school and Fulton, Lime Kiln and Reservoir. It will have two buses to take students to other schools throughout the day.
"What we keep is the spirit," Girardi said. "If there's a key to anything in this move, it's the opportunities that are going to be presented to our students. That's the heart of everything that this school will stand for."