State-of-the-art special needs school opens in Blaine

This fall, when students arrive at Karner Blue, a new school in Blaine, they will experience an educational environment like no other.

An indoor playground at Karner Blue is filled with equipment, including a swing. There are 13 attachments for swings throughout the school so that children who favor the swinging motion can be calmed down in any environment.

An indoor playground at Karner Blue is filled with equipment, including a swing. There are 13 attachments for swings throughout the school so that children who favor the swinging motion can be calmed down in any environment.Photo by Olivia Koester

Swings hang from the ceiling. Sensory rooms allow students to change the color of the walls and listen to music. Hallways curve so that students are not disrupted by what might be happening at the other end of the school.

Each and every element of the school has been thought out to best accommodate the needs of K-8 students with autism and other emotional and behavioral disorders.

Karner Blue, operated by Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916, provides a learning environment for students who fall under the federal instructional setting level four, where students spend more than 50 percent of the school day in a separate public facility with severe special needs.

Students are referred to 916’s special education programs by 916’s 12 member districts: Centennial, Columbia Heights, Forest Lake, Fridley, Mahtomedi, Mounds View, North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale, Roseville, South Washington County, Spring Lake Park, Stillwater and White Bear Lake. Students do enroll upon referral from non-member districts, but less commonly.

Students are bused at their home district’s expense to Karner Blue, 3764 95th Ave. NE, or one of 916’s other specialty schools. Students are placed in the school closest to home when possible.

Unaware of the required referral process, parents have inundated 916 with calls, trying to get their children into the new facility.

“They can’t just enroll on their own; that’s the hard thing for parents to really reconcile,” 916 Superintendent Connie Hayes said. “Many of them are looking for good services for their child, and for whatever reason, they’re not satisfied with where they’re at, and so it’s frustrating for them when we can’t just enroll them directly into the school.”

Ninety students will attend Karner Blue this fall, supervised by 80 staff members. Typically, classrooms, called learning labs, will house six to eight students and be led by one teacher with two assistants.

The new $17-million school has the capacity to accommodate 125 to 130 students in its 70,000-square-foot building.

Connecting with nature

The school is divided into four communities, each of which represents a Minnesota ecosystem: forest, lake, prairie and river.

Design elements in each community correspond to the proper ecosystem. For example, paint colors are greens and browns in the forest. Grasses adorn the area outside of prairie classrooms to keep everything cohesive.

The school’s name honors nature, too.

Karner blue butterflies are native to Minnesota, but are disappearing as land is developed and lupine, Karner blue caterpillars’ only food source, is destroyed. The butterfly is endangered and requires special attention and care, much like Karner Blue students.

Levels of intervention

“We want to give students the opportunity to make the environment work for them,” said Tammy Bednar, one of Karner Blue’s assistant managers, leading a tour group during a public open house Aug. 7.

Bednar explained how the school’s design facilitates that goal.

“Everything is flexible,” she said, pulling apart a classroom table to form desks. Students can choose how they are most comfortable working.

If students become frustrated, there are many levels of intervention within classrooms and communities.

Most classrooms sport high windows so that students are exposed to natural light, but avoid distraction. However, in certain classroom corners, students can escape to a small square window and sit beside it.

Classrooms and communities have breakout rooms where students can slip off to calm themselves down. The rooms are also used for occupational therapy, speech pathology and more. There aren’t rooms dedicated for these services so that once again students can have more choice, selecting where they would like to work with specialists.

Sensory rooms are another getaway for students.

Though students can leave the classroom to re-regulate themselves, every single door in the building locks for safety, so students can’t go anywhere unsupervised or without permission.

“There aren’t programs like this or buildings like this in the country,” Bednar said.

District 916 does have plans to build another. The district is sitting on land in Lake Elmo, which would be closer for students from member districts in the southeast metro.

In Karner Blue’s first year, the district will learn from the design before breaking ground in Lake Elmo. The design phase will start this spring, construction will likely begin in the spring of 2016, and school will start in the fall of 2017, Hayes said.

District 16 serves up to 800 level four special education students annually, typically 425 at one time.

Spring Lake Park and Karner Blue

A member district of 916, Spring Lake Park will send three students to Karner Blue this fall, according to Mike Callahan, director of student services for Spring Lake Park.

The number of students the district refers to 916 is constantly in flux.

“It’s ever-changing depending upon the needs of kids and the success they’re having,” Callahan said.

Spring Lake Park School Board Member Marilynn Forsberg, who also serves on the 916 board, toured Karner Blue for the first time last week.

“So frequently special education is just stuck in whatever space is available,” Forsberg said.

Not in 916 and, by association, not in Spring Lake Park.

Special education students will benefit from a meticulously designed, brand new building, Forsberg said. “I was really impressed with the careful thoughtfulness that was put (into Karner Blue).”

Another bonus for Spring Lake Park kids: Their travel time will be cut quite a bit.

District 916 ran special education programs out of two White Bear Lake elementary schools. With the new space at Karner Blue, 916 won’t need to do so in the 2014-2015 school year.

“I’m excited to see what the magic of this building will do for our kids,” Karner Blue Manager Val Rae Boe said.

Olivia Koester is at
olivia.koester@ecm-inc.com

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