Tuesday, November 12, 1996
Norita Aplin on Springer's little miracles

The Cincinnati Enquirer

I'm forgetting to do my job. It's Norita Aplin's fault. I should be asking about her retirement, and she keeps bringing me back to the children.

Frankly, I've been looking for an excuse to write about the Springer School. It's something we should be bragging about in the same breath as the one we use to blow off about our hills and our riverfront and Children's Hospital and the symphony. This place rescues kids.

The announcement that its executive director is leaving after 14 years gives me my chance. We sit in her Hyde Park office. Dr. Aplin talks about a fifth-grade boy, ''bright as a penny,'' who couldn't read a word. His parents drove him to Springer every day, 160 miles round trip.

''He was really whipped. He was saying 'I'm dumb, I'm stupid, I can't learn.''' The boy is now on a college scholarship.

Staying with them

His parents were lucky they were that close. Springer, a day school for children with learning disabilities (LD), is one of only eight in the country. People move here so their kids can attend.

This year's class includes students from Canada, Florida, New Jersey, Virginia, New Mexico, South Carolina and Delaware. There's a waiting list, and tuition is more than $10,000 a year. About a quarter of the students get financial aid.

I am served tea, a grown-up drink. But I eye the nearby candy trolley filled with chocolate. The candy is available for children. So is Norita Aplin. Eagle Scout ceremonies, high school graduations, recitals. They invite her and she comes, staying with them after they've left Springer. Graduates, some of whom fought like crazy to stay out of this school, come back to see her. A student, college-bound, tells her it is because ''you never gave up on me.''

The school serves 198 children, ages 6-15, most of whom are there about three years. The goal is to get them back into a mainstream school, this time equipped to succeed. ''You really do see miracles here,'' she says.

A consultant suggested that the executive director was too intense, that her ambition puts a lot of pressure on staff.

Kids blame themselves

''I always go for the gold,'' she says. The product is not widgets. I guess you would get a little intense if you thought you could save a child from a lifetime of despair. Her staff doesn't seem to mind.

Mark Helmick, the school psychologist who has worked there 20 years, can't figure out how he will possibly tell me all the good things he knows. He just loves her. You can tell. Another woman, there only a short time, is moved to tears every time I ask about Dr. Aplin's departure this June.

Nobody worries that the school will fall apart. It is on a steady and strong course. They'll just miss her.

A leader in the relatively new science of learning disabilities, she says we know more about how to treat LD kids than we know about how it happens. ''They're wired differently. We know,'' says Dr. Aplin, ''it's genetic and neurological. It's in the brain.'' They generally have reading and language problems. And their IQs often are higher than average.

At Springer they learn how to ''play the school game,'' and they learn they are valuable.

One student said after her sixth-grade class laughed uproariously at her, ''I promised myself never to participate in class again.'' At Springer, ''no one was ever allowed to make fun of another student for any reason.''

Respect, I believe it's called, a very big theme around Springer.

By the time Suzanne Reichard brought her son, Jeff, to Springer, she was worn out. Tutoring that didn't work, worry, calls from the teacher, guilt. The Anderson Township woman says she had almost as big a boost as did her son, now a student at Miami University in Oxford.

When a new child comes to her office, Dr. Aplin introduces herself and shakes hands. She has wide, cornflower blue eyes and a kind face. Trim and athletic, she drops to her knees with the little ones so she'll be at eye level.

She does that whenever she meets a child, even if there's a tea-drinker around. Because no matter what else is going on, she always brings it back to the children.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.