Eight-year-old Tyler Hawley has attended four schools in four years.
Diagnosed with pervasive developmental delay and a mood disorder, Tyler doesn't do well in crowded, noisy classrooms, says his dad, John.
But Tyler is thriving at the Karner Blue Education Center, a new $15 million school for special education students in the north and east metro.
"It's been a long journey but I feel like Tyler has finally found his place," John Hawley said.
The state-of-the art school opened earlier in September and is designed to accommodate students with special needs, many of whom have autism, emotional and behavioral disorders and cognitive delays.
For instance, the school's hallways are extra wide to give some students ample space, while doors have specially curved door handles that are easy to manipulate, minimizing frustrations for children with anxiety disorders.
There are also sensory rooms where students can listen to soothing music or watch a kaleidescope-like light on the wall that encourages students to focus on its colors, not the distractions of the outside world.
The school is part of Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District, a special education collaborative that serves students with disabilities in 50 school districts. When students aren't fitting into a traditional school, they are referred to 916. Right now, 86 students are enrolled at Karner Blue.
"When students come here they've typically had some challenging experience in their home school," said Karner Blue Principal Val Rae Boe. "What we're trying to do is create a warm and welcoming environment and help them know that things are going to be different here."
Karner Blue, named after a locally endangered butterfly, came out of the district's long-term planning process to deal with an increasing number of students with special needs, particularly younger students who have autism and emotional and behavioral disorders.
Since 2006, the number of elementary-age students referred to Northeast Metro 916 has more than doubled. Over that same time period, the district has also experienced an increase in the number of younger students with more extreme mental health needs and those who can be physically aggressive. The district also plans to open a K-8 school in Lake Elmo in 2017 to serve students in its southeast corner.
Until this school year, students in the northwest corner of the district have been scattered between a handful of schools, some of which were owned by other school districts that leased space to 916. None were designed specifically for students with disabilities.
Karner Blue is a different story.
The desks on wheels allow students to move around the room, and there is an abundance of natural lighting.
"The experts, our staff, helped us identify unique distractions specific to special needs children that are present in typical schools," said 916's superintendent, Connie Hayes.
For example, they paid close attention to the distractions created by heating and air conditioning and lighting systems. Most students can tune out those distractions, but some students with special needs will obsess on them.
"When distractions like these are eliminated, students can engage and enjoy the discovery process of learning," Hayes said.
That has been the case for Landon Ludwig, a 7-year-old boy with autism.
Last year, Landon was enrolled at a Forest Lake elementary. It wasn't going well. Overwhelmed by the number of students in his class, Landon had frequent meltdowns. Sometimes he threw things.
"At that point, I was thinking that I might have to quit my job and stay home with him to make sure he was OK," said Sarah Ludwig, Landon's mother. "We were running out of options."
Ludwig said she was thrilled to learn about Karner Blue and quickly made arrangements for her son to be referred.
She says the school feels like it was custom-built for Landon, a child who can be overstimulated easily.
"It's a very scary thing introducing a child with special needs to a new environment," Ludwig said. "You wonder if the teachers are going to embrace him. Because he can't tell me if he's unhappy or how his day went. You wonder if people are going to be mad at him if he acts out. But honestly, I can say that all my fears have been laid to rest since Landon has been here."
Karner Blue's serene vibe is enhanced by its location next to a state Department of Natural Resources protected wetland. The school is nestled in a heavily wooded area and gives staff the chance to incorporate nature into much of the school's curriculum.
The school's open, airy feel and great views are appreciated by Hawley, who said his son's previous school had a hospital feel to it.
Since attending Karner Blue, Tyler has been much calmer in the classroom, Hawley says, and looks forward to school every day.
That's a big change for Tyler, who lost his mother suddenly two years ago and has at times struggled to cope with his grief, said Hawley.
"It used to be, 'How do we get through the day?' " Hawley said. "Now, he's actually learning. It's taken four years and four schools, but I feel like we finally found a school that was built just for him."