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Special-needs school to connect kids to public schools

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Todd Cohen

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — At age 28, despite her inability to speak, use her hands or walk because of cerebral palsy resulting from a birth trauma, Lara Parker received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she led the graduation processional.

Parker, who died in 2002 on her 31st birthday, had received intensive communications training as a child that, along with a “headstick” she used to operate a computer and powered wheelchair, helped her navigate the challenges of public schools, college and living.

“Being unable to speak and use your hands is much more debilitating than not being able to walk because that’s the way you communicate and interact with the world and let them know who you are,” says Parker’s mother, Missy Lohr of Chapel Hill.

Now, as a volunteer, Lohr is helping to lead a collaborative effort to create an independent school to help the estimated 350 children in the Triangle with significant communications and mobility problems reach their academic potential in mainstream classrooms in local public schools.

Lohr is vice-chair of the New Voices Foundation, a new nonprofit formed to raise money for the New Voices School that organizers expect will open in spring 2010.

Chaired by community volunteer Prue Meehan, the foundation aims to raise $3 million to $5 million over five years to help cover the cost of buying land, building the school and operating for the first three years.

Working in partnership with the public schools in Chatham, Durham, Orange and Wake counties and in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, and with Duke University, N.C. State University and UNC-CH, the school will provide diagnostic and transition services for special-needs students, and training for public-school teachers, in those public-school systems.

With a staff of 40, the school will have space for up to 50 students who will stay only as long as needed before moving to public schools.

The school also will assess the needs of 50 to 75 children a year, referring them either to the school or directly back to their local public schools.

“This is designed to be a capacity-building program for the schools, says Don Stedman, president and CEO of the foundation and a professor and dean emeritus at the School of Education at UNC-CH. “Kids won’t spend anymore time in New Voices School than they have to.”

With funds from the John Rex Endowment, the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation and the Quintiles Gives Back Fund at the Triangle Community Foundation, a 36-member volunteer group co-chaired by Stedman and Lohr developed plans for the school and assessment center.

And with grants from the Prue and Peter Meehan Fund at the Triangle Community Foundation, and from the Community Partnerships Fund at GSK, the assessment center is testing its system for referring students to the five public-school systems.

The foundation, which also has received a grant from the Goodnight Education Foundation, plans to help secure scholarship funds and third-party reimbursements from Medicare and other providers to help cover costs.

“We don’t want any financial barriers for kids or families,” Stedman says.

Raleigh consultant Elizabeth Benefield, who serves as development counsel for the foundation, says the school and assessment center are designed to be an “inclusion program.”

On March 11, the Research Triangle Foundation will sponsor a reception for New Voices that will include unveiling plans for the school and a video produced by Footpath Pictures in Raleigh to market the project.

Lohr says her daughter’s ability to “access higher education and have a full life and friends and make choices and be very productive came from being able to communicate.”

The New Voices School, she says, “will give other children who have similar disabilities the support and scaffolding they need in order to be successful in their own community settings and to make the life choices that are appropriate to them.”

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