Sheri Flamenbaum was thrilled to discover she was pregnant with twins in 2001. She was devastated two years later when her twins were referred to the Debbie School at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. The twins were diagnosed with developmental delays and hypotonia, or floppiness. At age 2 1/2, Haley was at the level of a 15-month-old child; Alec was like an 8-month-old. “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” says Flamenbaum. All the former physical therapist and UM alum knew of the Debbie School was the classroom it had for profoundly disabled children—and she was terrified to think that “my children belong there.” But “once I got into the Debbie School, it was the most wonderful experience,” Flamenbaum says. “Everybody there, from their teachers to the bus drivers to the custodians to the administrators, loves and knows every child by name. My children had the best of everything—the best therapists, the best programs, the best education. I knew nothing about the Debbie School, and I’m now one of its biggest cheerleaders.” The path to the Debbie School was different for another mother. After seeking second and third and fourth opinions, Carladenise Edwards was eager to send her son, William, to the school for its Auditory/Oral Education Program. The toddler had been diagnosed with moderate to severe bilateral hearing impairment and started attending the Debbie School’s summer camp. “We saw progress the first week,” says Edwards. “He really started to communicate, and we’ve kept him there ever since.”

Now 3, William is enrolled in the program full time and continues to improve his communication skills. “He’s receiving therapy every day,” Edwards says. “Our only other option was to send him some place where he would receive therapy once a week. There just aren’t enough therapists to go around.”

Joining William at the Debbie School is his 16-month-old sister, Zora. The “typically developing” child is also thriving at the school. “She’s building self-esteem and confidence and leadership skills. I’m really pleased with her progress,” Edwards says.

The Debbie School (also known as the Debbie Institute) “is one of the gems of the Mailman Center for Child Development and the Miller School of Medicine,” says Daniel Armstrong, Ph.D., professor and associate chair of the Department of Pediatrics and director of the Mailman Center. “Parents of children who go there gush about their child’s experience, regardless of whether the child has a disability or not.” A higher than average teacher-to-student ratio, coupled with early intervention research, training, and service, make the school popular for parents of both typically developing children and children with disabilities.

The enthusiasm doesn’t end when the child leaves the Debbie School. There are few research/service programs like the Debbie School that inspire gratitude for more than 20 years,” Armstrong says.

The Debbie Institute was built in 1972 to house early education programs for young children with disabilities. The institute conducts research on problems impacting children with special needs and provides early intervention services for children and their families. It also offers training for University students interested in careers ranging from special education to physical therapy. The institute is a designated “demonstration school” where students from many different disciplines come to research and learn different techniques and faculty members apply different models of teaching gleaned from research. Originally called “laboratory schools,” demonstration schools are the “scientific arenas in which professionals experiment with new ideas that advance teaching and learning,” notes Rebecca Fewell, Ph.D., who directed the Debbie Institute from 1991 until her retirement in 2002.

The results of research studies from demonstration schools are often key to shaping public policy. In 1975 education for students with disabilities began to change with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A National Education Association publication, NEA Today Online, reported that as late as the mid-1970s an “estimated one million kids with disabilities didn’t even attend school. For disabled children who did attend school, special education usually meant placement in a special class or a special school.” A series of amendments to IDEA in the 1990s mandated moving children with disabilities into classrooms with typically developing peers.

The Debbie School was one of the first schools that provided “a model for early intervention for young children with disabilities, which was then transitioned to Miami-Dade County Public Schools and is now known as their Prekindergarten Program for Children with Disabilities,” says Kathleen Vergara, associate director of the Debbie School. The school was one of the first in the country to research—and then advocate—placing both typically developing children and children with special needs in classrooms together. It was a hard sell at first. “Parents of children with disabilities thought teachers would only pay attention to typically developing children, and parents of typically developing children thought their children would imitate the children with disabilities,” Vergara says. A generation of children has now grown up “comfortable with children with disabilities and their differences. And the gains for children with disabilities have been greater than predicted,” Vergara says.

Vergara heads a staff of about 60 who serve the school’s three separate programs for children.

The Early Education Program serves 80 children with developmental disabilities from birth through 3 years of age with their peers. The program includes six “inclusion” classrooms as well as one self-contained classroom for children with severe disabilities.

The Auditory/Oral Education Program serves 35 children who are deaf and hard of hearing from 12 months to 8 years of age, and the Infant-Toddler-Preschool Education Program has approximately 45 typically developing children between the ages of birth through 5. Families pay tuition to support those services—the Early Education and Auditory/ Oral Education programs are supported by contracts with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Children’s Medical Services, while summer services are funded by The Children’s Trust.

“The Auditory/Oral program is also an inclusion program,” says Vergara. “The children are together from the time they’re 1 until they move out into kindergarten. The more time they spend together, the closer they become.”

Alec and Haley Flamenbaum were referred to the Early Education Program after having been diagnosed with more than a 25 percent deficiency in one or more areas. They became eligible for fully funded education from the State of Florida. “To me, it was a handout, and that had a stigma,” admits Flamenbaum. “I thought I would be treated differently because I wasn’t paying, but I never felt out of place—it always felt like home.

“But the most important thing is the quality of education and the care they received,” Flamenbaum says. “The amount of disabilities these children come in with and overcome because of the school’s stellar staff is incredible.”

In addition to its educational programs, the Debbie School is engaged in several studies designed to improve the education of both disabled and non-disabled children. Among those projects is the DEB-Tech Project, originally funded by the Health Foundation of South Florida, which is developing a model program on providing up-to-date assistive technology for special needs children who are educated in inclusive classrooms with their typically developing peers.

Vergara says the DEB-Tech Project helped create guidelines for the best practices in assistive technology usage in classrooms. Through funding from The Children’s Trust, the Debbie School has expanded the DEB-Tech Project by providing workshops on how to use assistive technology at child care centers throughout Miami-Dade County.

Outside of the Debbie School, students and teachers from all over the state benefit from its research, including former pupils.

After attending the school for a year, Alec and Haley Flamenbaum are now almost 6 years old and in kindergarten at a Miami-Dade public school. They come back to the school every year for summer camp. Their mother obviously still holds the school dear: “My husband and I may have created our beautiful twins, but the Debbie School gave us the children they were meant to be,” she says.