Filling a Special Needs Gap

Filling a Special Needs Gap

Katherine Thomas School adds ninth and 10th grade.

Donna Dixon was pleased with the education her son Alex was receiving at the Katherine Thomas School. But when Alex reached the sixth grade, Dixon had no choice but to start looking around for a new school.

Katherine Thomas — the private, nonprofit Rockville school for children with learning and language disabilities — only went through eighth grade. Alex would soon have to move on.

“I start looking around and I start getting the names of all the high schools that possibly have services for my son. And I go visiting the schools. I sit in,” Dixon, a Potomac resident, recalled. “And I come back saying, ‘Well, maybe, but it’s just not the same.’ What I felt here at Katherine Thomas was it was a second home. It was a place where my son felt cared for.”

OTHER PARENTS felt the same way. So in November of 2003, Dixon and the other members of Katherine Thomas’ Board of Trustees voted to begin a $1.1 million capital campaign to open the Katherine Thomas School High School.

The campaign exceeded its goals and the new school opened its doors this fall, just in time for Alex to begin as a ninth-grader.

The Katherine Thomas School is an arm of the 55-year-old non-profit Treatment and Learning Centers. TLC offers services for children and adults with developmental and hearing disabilities and educational needs: testing and diagnostics, outpatient therapy, physical therapy and vocational education.

The new high school took only 40 ninth- and 10th-graders this year, with plans extend to 11th and 12th grade as the students advance. And the “new” school is really a renovated portion of the existing Katherine Thomas School for K-8 students on Medical Center Drive near Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in Rockville. Administrative offices and some other facilities were moved to a nearby location to make space and the reshuffling will continue for the next year.

The phasing-in of the new program was of little concern to the nearly 100 people that came to a ribbon-cutting for the new school Sept. 28. There was good reason to celebrate: donors, volunteers and school teachers and administrators had done the seemingly impossible in less than two years.

“I remember when we started the lower school, we couldn’t afford [it]. And we had the middle school, we said, ‘We’ll never be able to do it, we can’t make the budget, we’ll never raise enough money for that,’” said Barry Scher, the Giant Food executive and Katherine Thomas trustee who helped lead the campaign. “Today is another great milestone thanks to everybody here.”

“It’s always remarkable, I think, what volunteers who believe in a cause can do,” said Richard Pavlin, a Potomac resident and executive director of Treatment and Learning Centers.

ROBERTS OXYGEN President Bob Roberts pledged $200,000 and the Maryland Sen. Jennie Forehand (D-17) sponsored a $200,000 bond bill in the Maryland General Assembly.

Potomac resident and “It’s Academic” host Mac McGarry led the ceremonies Wednesday, at which Forehand, County Councilmembers Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) and Phil Andrews (D-3), and a representative of U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-8th) thanked Katherine Thomas teachers and staff.

The ribbon-cutting came exactly one week before the scheduled date for oral arguments in the Supreme Court case Weast v. Schaffer, which grew out of a dispute over a special needs child’s school placement.

“Special non-public schools like the Katherine Thomas School here play a vital role in educating students with special needs, complementing and sometimes filling any gaps when the public school systems do not have an appropriate program,” Forehand said in remarks.

She said critics had called the school a “pork-barrel project” for her, but that private subsidy for the school makes it affordable for students—savings that are passed on to the county when public school special education students are placed there.