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'A second home' for special students: Twin Cities-area school is the model for Fargo special education facility

Syreeta Wilkins, a spokeswoman for Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916, talks Wednesday, May 9, about the specially designed playgrounds and a wetland that is included in the curriculum at the Karner Blue Education Center in Blaine, Minn. Helmut Schmidt / Forum News Service1 / 2
The halls at Karner Blue Education Center in Blaine, Minn., are wide with high ceilings. There are curves, but no long straightaways so students aren't tempted to dash. Modular furniture in this common area is designed to allow students to create their own learning spaces. Helmut Schmidt / Forum News Service2 / 2

BLAINE, Minn. — The Karner Blue Education Center doesn't look particularly special from the outside. Single-story, brown brick school. A couple of playgrounds.

But thanks to thoughtful design and robust staffing, school district officials here say it's making an extraordinary difference for the 115 special education students who attend.

It's spacious, ultra-quiet, with plenty of spaces for kindergarten through eighth-graders with autism, emotional and behavioral disorders, and cognitive disabilities to take timeouts and reset overloaded senses or amped-up emotions.

An adjoining wetland is used to teach science. And, when all the adults in the building are tallied, the staff-to-student ratio is 1-to-1.

Karner Blue is the model the Fargo and West Fargo school districts are seeking to emulate with a $4.3 million renovation at Fargo's Agassiz School to create a "Level D" or "Level 4" special education facility. Two classrooms will take up to 16 kindergarten through fifth-grade students this fall, with capacity expanded up to 64 students by fall 2019.

Federal guidelines classify Level D students as those who receive special education services at a school other than their home school for more than 50 percent of the day.

Students may not need to have special physical or cognitive needs to be in the Agassiz program, according to Fargo Superintendent Jeff Schatz. They could just be exhibiting violent behavior, or be identified as emotionally disturbed.

The Fargo School Board voted Tuesday, May 8, to approve renovating Agassiz, despite protests from some parents and staff, who worry the facility could be used as a "dump-off" site for some students.

The facility is being designed not only for current needs but anticipated growth, as well as being open to taking in students from other area school districts in North Dakota's South East Education Cooperative, Associate Superintendent Bob Grosz said.

Grosz said staff will be highly trained, with a low student-to-teacher ratio and a constellation of services in place to help students. "We truly want to meet the students where they are at," he said.

Karner Blue's approach

Officials from Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District say that in the four years Karner Blue has been open, the calm atmosphere, small class sizes — five to seven students — and wrap-around services the school offers have made it a place parents don't want their kids to leave — even when they are ready to return to their home schools.

One student's family "said it felt for them like a second home, a second family, and they didn't worry at all when their child was in our program," Val Rae Boe, the manager/principal of Karner Blue, said Wednesday, May 9.

Just as high-achieving students may attend a magnet school, special education students need a place to help them succeed. "We feel strongly that students of all abilities deserve to have an excellent school, deserve to have something like this, a nature-based education," district spokeswoman Syreeta Wilkins said.

Students at Karner Blue come from 14 school districts that Northeast Metro 916 serves in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Karner Blue is not meant to be the home school for children that attend, Boe said. Rather, the services they get are meant "to help them build the skills they need to return to their home schools" over time, she said.

While Karner Blue students learn math, science, English and other subjects, they also learn to self-regulate their behavior: how to understand anxiety, how to understand their body, and how to calm themselves.

Each teacher can rely upon two to three specially trained paraprofessionals. The school also has sign language experts, occupational and speech therapists, autism specialists, speech clinicians and social workers. Students also get specialized equipment and furniture based on their needs.

"Everybody wraps around the student and works on that (individualized education) plan to help them quickly build the skills they need to be able to successfully engage in instruction," Boe said.

This year, 24 students will be ready to transition back to their home schools, she said.

Purpose-built

Karner Blue cost a little over $19 million to build and furnish. It was designed with special education in mind.

Ceilings are high and covered with sound-deadening panels. Skylights dotted throughout the building bring in natural light. Windows are engineered to even give interior rooms a glimpse of the outdoors.

Hallways are extra wide, allowing students and their teachers and aides to walk hand-in-hand and still pass others with room to spare.

Curves and corners abound: There are no long halls to tempt a child to break into a sprint.

Where there isn't wood, the walls are painted in soft pastels, matching the modular furniture in the four learning pods.

The lights are LEDs, so the soft background buzz of fluorescents is absent. The HVAC system is virtually soundless, so aural triggers that overload some children's senses are eliminated.

Well into Wednesday morning classes, it was quiet. Peaceful. Calm.

Key cards are required to use the doors between the learning pods, so a child who leaves a classroom can't disrupt learning elsewhere in the school.There are two playgrounds outside. One has mulch, and the other has a solid surface, for children with limited mobility.

The pods have inside playgrounds with swings and foam mats, for when the weather outside is too cold or wet.

A Department of Natural Resources-protected wetland to the rear of the building is part of the curriculum, helping students learn about nature.

If students need a break, Karner Blue has lots of smaller rooms where they can go to calm themselves. Many of those rooms have sound and lighting controls students can set to their favorite colors and intensities, with music or nature sounds. Several types of chairs are available, from rockers to beanbags.

Fire alarm monitors on the ceilings resemble message boards. Rather than the blaring horn sound used in most schools — which would overwhelm students on the autism spectrum — fire warnings are given in a soft voice with messages streamed on the monitor.

Classrooms have full-wall whiteboards and interactive projectors for teaching.

Some rooms have dividers to create cubicle spaces for students. There are also timeout rooms for students having trouble processing emotions or interacting with others.

"It's not like we're baby-sitting. We're not just about managing behavior. We're helping students progress academically as well," Wilkins said.

For students having severe behavioral issues, there's a team trained to deal with crisis situations. And there's a private, quiet area for individual instruction. If students are having physical or mental health issues, there's a separate, secluded exit where a student can be taken by ambulance for treatment, without anyone else in the school being able to observe.

'A beautiful dance'

Dan Naidicz, director of special education for Northeast Metro 916, said getting the design right meant getting lots of staff input. He said it will also be important for Fargo to have an architect that understands behavioral health.

But it's not all a matter of bricks and mortar.

"The other part of it is the culture that you build within the building, how you treat students, the expectations you have for students. The staff that you hire are just as important," Naidicz said.

The community and other agencies providing services to special education students were also consulted, Wilkins said.

Building a capable staff is supremely important, Boe said. Investing in "professional development and training, training, training" is a must.

"It's about creating a culture of collaboration. Everybody has everybody else's back," she said. "It's a beautiful dance to watch when you're in a classroom. You see a student ... maybe showing some signs they are going to be struggling," and the team responds proactively to help the student.

One of the payoffs is safety, Boe said.

"We saw right away when we opened Karner Blue that there was a reduction in staff injuries, a reduction in student injuries. And it's ... more about the reduction in behaviors," she said.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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