If you grew up with older siblings, you may have experienced “hand-me-downs”—i.e., clothes that were bought or fashioned for an older brother or sister, that may fit you, more or less; or not.
Now consider the experience of a child with autism, cognitive disabilities, or an emotional behavioral disorder, who is placed into a school built for traditional students. It’s not a great fit. Long corridors can trigger an impulse to bolt. Fluorescent lights flicker and buzz. HVAC systems are noisy and alarm bells are jarring. Even entering the building amid a crowd of other kids can be daunting.
Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916 (NEM 916), a consortium of a dozen Twin Cities school districts, is working to create a school environment that fits the needs of these students: Karner Blue Education Center opened in September 2014 and serves 150 children in district grades K-8 requiring the most restrictive level of special ed programming. It is among the first in the country that has been custom-designed and built to remove the barriers to learning that traditional schools present for these students.
An interdisciplinary team comprised of KA, architect BWBR, member districts, district administration, faculty and families of the students all provided input to develop a plan for a school facility that removes barriers to learning.
“One of the great values that KA brought to the design and construction phase of the process was to really help us do careful cost analysis on all of the options that were on the table, so that we could make spending decisions that really focused on helping us meet the programmatic goals that we had,” said NEM 916 Superintendent Connie Hayes.
The Karner Blue difference is evident upon arrival. To remove the chaos of crowded entrances, the facility provides three separate front doors, buffered by curved sidewalks, awnings, and landscaped berms.
A Habitat for Special Needs Students
Reflecting its rural setting near a nature preserve, the school is organized into different prairie habitat themes, each configured for students with differing needs.
Corridors have curving walls, masking views to exits and lessening the impulse to run. Durable lower walls are made to withstand kicks and punches. KA worked through eight different wall unit mockups of reinforced drywall and wood paneling for the district to test.
“They stuck with us, they brainstormed, and they helped us come up with really the very best decision,” Hayes said.
There are no alarm bells; instead, digital boards convey messages. Doors unlock automatically in the event of an emergency. Outdoor playgrounds are fenced securely. Solar tubes draw natural light into the gymnasium and some of the classrooms. In-ground heat helps minimize the effect of temperature changes. HVAC systems have enhanced sound attenuation, including oversized ducts and insulated systems that run under hallways, keeping classrooms silent.
Flexibility is built into the environment. Breakout areas, swing chairs, rocking furniture, indoor climbing walls and sensory rooms allow students a place to wiggle, sway, climb and manipulate their environment to manage stress. Soft furnishings and soothing colors enhance the calming effect.
As students respond to the new school environment, the school will learn, too. Plans are now in the works for a second special education school for the district, this one in Lake Elmo.
“I can’t wait to start having conversations with my colleagues around the country who serve this population of kids,” said Hayes.