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Potomac’s ‘Extraordinary Resource’

State legislators seek funds for Ivymount School, which serves students with special needs.

Demanding Montgomery County parents may be quick to gripe about the shortcomings of their children’s schools, but most will ultimately say they know their children are getting a top-notch education.

Parents at Potomac’s Ivymount School — which serves children with serious physical, cognitive, speech, and learning disabilities — offer praise of a different magnitude.

“I thank God and I’m not a particularly religious person,” said Bob Astrove, father of a high-schooler with autism and a member of the Ivymount Board. “Every day, miracles happen there.”

“I just feel so eternally grateful that she’s there,” said Beth Eisman, whose daughter Dana, 15, has autism. “It’s hard to get into Ivymount now. You have to pray for your spot.”

IVYMOUNT is the only school to win the United States Department of Education Blue Ribbon Award-winner in the Washington area and the winner of several other awards.

The few private schools certified to provide special education services in the region each address particular niches, such as children with emotional disturbances of children with psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia. Ivymount is the only area school that caters to students with multiple disabilities and has specialized programs for children with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome. Consequently, it draws its 215 students not only from Montgomery County, but from Prince George’s and Frederick counties, from Northern Virginia, the District of Columbia and as far away as Baltimore and the Eastern Shore.

All that made it easy for Maryland Sen. Brian Frosh (D-16) to ask his colleagues to support a $170,000 bond bill for classroom and bathroom renovations at the school. The money would help to complete improvements made during a major renovation five years ago. Since the building was built as a traditional public elementary school in 1961, it has to be retrofitted with ramps and other fixtures to be Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant.

“It’s a modest amount of money for an extraordinary resource,” Frosh said. “They had a small and outdated facility that they’ve been improving and they’re getting there. … It really is a statewide resource.”

Frosh is joined by Sen. Rob Garagiola (D-15) and six other senators in sponsoring the bond bill.

In the House of Delegates, all six representatives of Districts 15 and 16 are sponsors. Ivymount, near the corner of Seven Locks Road and Tuckerman Lane, is on the border of the two districts.

The bill was favorably received in both houses and Frosh said that the funding is very likely to come through.

IVYMOUNT IS USUALLY described as a non-public school. The school leases its building — the former Georgetown Hill Elementary School — from Montgomery County and charges annual tuition. However, nearly all of its students are referred by their home public school systems, which pay for Ivymount.

As a certified provider of special education services and a referral recipient, Ivymount is stringently monitored by the state, which audits its $10 million annual budget, oversees detailed licensing requirements and conducts on-site monitoring every third year.

Ivymount’s 215 students occupy a rather spacious school. But while a public elementary school might have one teacher per 25 or 30 students, Ivymount has a student-staff ratio of 1:1 in many classrooms, with teachers, assistants, speech and physical therapists, nurses and specialists.

“I have some of the most wonderful staff members. They are so talented and dedicated,” said Janet Wintrol, the school’s director. “They could be teaching, even in the school system, for more money.”

The school now has services for students ages 4-21, with an emphasis at all levels on developing skills that will foster greater independence. Students participate in many of the activities of mainstream school — the school holds a science fair and students publish a newspaper — but also learn how to handle tasks like buying shoes or getting a haircut.

“Everything they do is kind of a lesson,” Wintrol said. “Our goal when a child leaves here is that they have something to offer somewhere.”

Older students also work on developing job skills. High school and middle school students operate class businesses — selling quesadillas or root beer floats, for example — through which they learn about managing money, organizing orders, and interacting with others.

Astrove’s son Scott just got his first outside job — working under a teacher’s supervision at PetSmart in Rockville.

“He likes it,” Astrove said, but more than that, “Scott loves going to school. Scott comes home every day and starts reciting to us his schedule for the next day.”

If getting a spot at Ivymount is increasingly difficult, more difficult still is finding a place for students leaving the school and transitioning into adult life.

Students like Scott Astrove and Dana Eisman will lose a community that they have been a part of for as long as 18 years. Dana, 15, started at Ivymount when she was 2 and a half.

“The state really needs to do something. There’s not many options for once they leave a school like Ivymount and it’s scary,” Beth Eisman said. “I can’t believe that it's just six more years left.”