Like a lot of teenagers, Shawn Reed has started working. The 16-year-old from Southeast Washington is balancing the demands of school with not one but two jobs.

A couple of days a week, between classes, he helps stuff envelopes for the Department of Labor. Another day each week, he works on a project for the Alexandria Fire Department, helping put together emergency preparedness kits.

For Shawn, who has cerebral palsy and is mentally retarded, the jobs are part of an education that for many years was stalled in the bureaucracy of the D.C. public school system. The oldest of three children, Shawn cannot talk or walk, and he depends on others to feed him and move him.

Only after the intervention of a children's legal advocacy group and ultimately a federal court did Shawn escape C. Melvin Sharpe Health, the Northwest Washington school where he had languished for several years without much of the therapy and care he needed. Ruling that Shawn had been denied the fair and appropriate education he was entitled to under law, a federal judge ordered the city to pay for Shawn to attend St. Coletta of Greater Washington, a private special education school in Alexandria

Within months of his transfer there in September 2004, Shawn was making modest but unmistakable progress, according to his mother, the school staff and his attorneys. And now they are hoping that Shawn, in his second year, can learn even more.

Sitting in his wheelchair one day recently, with his occupational therapist at his side, Shawn searched the table in front of him for one of the pocket-size emergency information cards that are being included in the Alexandria preparedness kits. Grasping one in his long fingers, he waved it around as his therapist tried to maneuver a plastic sack into position to catch the card. Sometimes the cards fell where they were supposed to; sometimes they didn't.

But just seeing and feeling the objects in front of him and picking them up without any help has been a significant step forward for Shawn, said his occupational therapist, Jan Pascual.

"When I first started with him, I would place a toy in front of him, and sometimes he would touch it, but the majority of time he wouldn't," she said. "Now, he's definitely doing more exploring."

-- Henri E. Cauvin

Shawn Reed works with occupational therapist Jan Pascual at St. Coletta in Alexandria.