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Most deserving lack the most Bureaucratic squabble delays modernizing school for disabled

If you need a face to go with the injustices at School 84, a school that government seems to have forgotten, look no further than Meghan Bowen's wide Irish smile.

Look no further than the tear-soaked face of Jelainia Levy as she imagines life without the teachers who changed her son's life.

And look no further than Sean Richards, who, between hugs with his son, calls the school one of Erie County's best kept secrets.

So why is this school of choice for more than 100 severely disabled students in such poor condition?

Why is the roof leaking?

Why are the windows rusting?

Why is plaster falling from the ceiling?

The children, among the most deserving in Erie County, are caught in a bureaucratic squabble between state and local officials. The city and county want to modernize the Erie County Health Care Center for Children. State education officials want the children who go there mainstreamed into traditional schools.

And while the adults fight, the kids go without -- separate and unequal. "Without this school, these kids wouldn't be learning," said Sean Carden, a 14-year-old student at the school on the campus of Erie County Medical Center.

Carden also feels at home here. He is one of several kids who use wheelchairs. "At a regular school, I don't think I'd fit in," he says without pause. "At a regular school, I'd be picked on."

To a kid, you hear the same heartbreaking tale of how they came from other schools, where they were taunted and made fun of.

Here, they have a sense of belonging and purpose.

"Our school helps educate kids that most schools wouldn't educate," said Meghan Bowen, the 11-year-old student from South Buffalo.

Meghan's constant smile belies a candor that will shock you. She talks openly and honestly of what school life was like before she came to School 84 four years ago. "I don't get made fun of anymore," she says.

She also has friends, lots of them, but none more important than her sidekick, 11-year-old Lynne Krawczyk of South Wales. When asked about her friend, Meghan erupts from her wheelchair, boasting of their friendship, all the while goading a sheepish Lynne into a series of high fives.

>Against mainstreaming

They, more than anyone, know what their school lacks. They also know what it means to be mainstreamed. And they want no part of it.

But that's the debate at School 84, a debate that has allowed these kids to languish in a school desperate for money and resources.

It's also a debate with passionate advocates on both sides. As recently as October, the mainstream side gained a new and influential voice in Judith E. Heumann, a former assistant secretary for special education in the U.S. Department of Education.

Heumann, now a consultant for the World Bank, has spent her life working to bring people with disabilities into the mainstream of society, a message she brought here as part of an appearance at the University at Buffalo.

"If my life was only allowed to be what others saw for me, I wouldn't be where I am now," she said during her trip to Buffalo.

While here, Heumann also met with the staff at School 84 and bluntly told them of her concerns about segregating students with special educational needs.

It's a message the staff has heard before.

"At School 84, we don't pity our children," said Principal Sandra Wilhite. "We give them a real world outlook. We give them a sense of purpose I don't think they would get at another school."

Teachers and staff offer no apologies for the "safe, inclusive" environment they provide their students, who come from 19 city and suburban school districts.

What they regret are the conditions their students still endure, years after the debate first began. "I'm disappointed because my children are more deserving," says Wilhite, her eyes wet with tears.

The signs of wear are everywhere in the 37-year-old structure. The carpets are water stained, evidence of a leaking roof, and the windows are old and rusting.

The school's pool, a vital part of the students' physical therapy, is often closed because of mechanical problems, and the computer room is still waiting to be wired.

>'A sense of belonging'

And yet, the staff, students and parents talk of this place as a treasure.

"Where would we be without School 84?," says Jelainia Levy, whose son, Jenard, first came here 10 years ago. "Every day when he comes home, he talks about his day. Here, he sees everyone as an equal."

"There's a sense of belonging," said Jerry Verdi of Buffalo, the father of a 16-year-old student. "They fit in here. They have a sense of purpose."

Verdi is convinced that, without School 84, his son would be institutionalized, not mainstreamed in another school. And for a lot of parents, that's the rub.

Many of their children have disabilities are so severe -- spina bifida, traumatic brain injuries and all types of dystrophy -- that integrating them into traditional schools would seem out of the question.

"This is one of the best-hidden secrets in Buffalo," said Sean Richards of Buffalo, father of 14-year-Angelo, a student at the school.

Gary Panek says his son Jimmy came here two years ago, after several years of feeling "absolutely miserable" about his old school. Jimmy had even stopped reading -- one of his favorite pastimes.

After Jimmy had been at School 84 a short time, Panek and his wife discovered him reopening the books he had shelved a year earlier.

"We had tears in our eyes," Panek said. "When he got here, it was like a revelation."

Those are the stories that city and county officials like to hear as they engage the state in a political battle over the future of School 84.

After years of sitting back and waiting, local officials now seem determined to get funding for much-needed improvements at the school.

"This is an opportunity to rectify a past injustice," said Erie County Legislator Timothy Kennedy, a Buffalo Democrat. "These children are kids who deserve the very best resources. And the reality is just the opposite."

Kennedy, an occupational therapist, has gone out of his way to raise awareness about the school among public officials, including local members of the State Legislature. He wants state lawmakers to push for the same type of aid used for dozens of other public schools across the county.

One of the hurdles in Kennedy's way is the unique ownership of the building. The school is run by the Buffalo Public Schools, but the building is owned by the county, in part because the school serves children from outside the city.

>Hard to get state aid

Over the years, the county's ownership has made it difficult for the school to qualify for state aid.

"The district does not own that building and, as a consequence, they're not eligible to receive aid on it," said Tom Dunn, spokesman for the state Education Department.

Local officials say the problem is Albany's cookie-cutter approach to funding building improvements and School 84's inability to fit into one of those molds.

"It's one of the happiest schools in the district," said Gary Crosby, chief financial officer for the Buffalo schools. "It's also a school that has not received its fair share of resources."

Crosby turns downright passionate when talking about the work done at School 84 and the numerous obstacles that have allowed it to languish in disrepair.

"That is not going to happen this time," he said. "This neglect has to stop."

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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