A state-of-the-art public elementary school for children with autism and other emotional and behavioral disorders will open in Blaine in the fall of 2014, a move that is expected to benefit special education students across the north and east metro areas.
The K-8 school, to be named Karner Blue, is being built by Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District, which serves children with disabilities from 10 east and north metro school districts.
The new 70,000-square-foot school is expected to house between 120 and 140 students, some of whom now face 45-minute bus rides from the north metro to District 916 programs in Woodbury and Maplewood.
Not only will those students receive intensive special education services closer to home, but space in the east metro programs will be freed up, said Dan Naidicz, the district’s special education director.
Ground was broken on June 19 for the new school, which is being built near 95th and Hamline avenues in Blaine and will cost about $15 million.
Intermediate school districts like District 916 were created to help share resources and costs for highly specialized programs. Part of District 916’s mission is to serve 400 children with disabilities from its 10 member districts, which includes five of the six public school systems that serve Washington County area residents.
Students who attend Karner Blue will be primarily from the north metro and will be referred there when their originating district determines it cannot meet their special education needs in their neighborhood schools.
Families cannot open enroll into the District 916 special education program. It’s by referral only.
“Over the last few years, the enrollment in our programs has changed from kids who had mild cognitive disabilities and physical disabilities to more students with autism and students with emotional and behavioral disorders and/or mental health needs,” Naidicz said.
“That’s really a reflection of what’s going on in our member districts. Those districts have done a great job of providing expanded levels of special education services, but there are a small number of kids that require a very unique setting, a very unique set of instructional strategies, and that’s our niche. That’s what we do.”
The new school will have an indoor playground, calming rooms and more intimate classrooms to better accommodate smaller special education class sizes. It also will include ample space for the more than 100 specialists, teachers and therapists who will work with the students.
The smallest details — lighting choices, window placement, even the sound of the fire alarm — will be tailored to the special needs population, district officials say. The goal is to make the building a calming, safe place for children that aids their learning.
Most of the students at Karner Blue will come from the Columbia Heights, Centennial, Mounds View, Spring Lake Park and Roseville districts. Some now travel to smaller K-5 programs that District 916 operates at Valley Crossing Community School in Woodbury and John Glenn Middle School in Maplewood.
Naidicz said that the district’s special education program has grown by 40 to 50 students each year for the past two years. That has led to a tightening of space at the elementary level, he said. Elementary enrollment, in turn, has been closed to nonmember districts.
When Karner Blue opens, he said, the district expects to reopen the Valley Crossing and John Glenn programs to students from nonmember districts such as St. Paul.
Construction of the new school was the first phase of a three-phase facilities plan approved by the District 916 board last year. The second would be another K-8 special education facility in the southeastern part of the intermediate district — that being in Washington or Ramsey counties.
When and where it will be built will depend on enrollment trends, and there has been no timeline set for a decision, Naidicz said.
Staff writer Anthony Lonetree contributed to this report.