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.

Ground was broken last week for the K-8 school, to be named Karner Blue. It will have an indoor playground, calming rooms and more intimate classrooms to better accommodate smaller special education class sizes. It will also include ample space for the cadre of specialists, teachers and therapists who work with these students.

The smallest details — lighting choices, window placement, even the sound of the fire alarm — will be tailored to accommodate a special needs population, district officials say. The goal is to make the building a calming, safe place for children that aids their learning.

Leaders from Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916 were at last week's groundbreaking, at the corner of 95th and Hamline avenues. The school will cost about $15 million.

District 916 is one of three intermediate school districts in the state. These are districts 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 10 north metro districts.

Students who attend the new school will be referred there when their originating district determines it cannot meet their special education needs in its neighborhood schools. Families cannot open enroll into the District 916 special education program. It's by referral only.

The new 70,000 square-foot school is expected to house between 120 and 140 students in K-8, along with more than 100 staff members. It will serve students who live in the area, mostly from the Columbia Heights, Centennial, Mounds View, Spring Lake Park and Roseville school districts.

Currently, students needing this type of intensive special education services face a 45-minute bus ride to schools in Woodbury or North St. Paul.

"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," said Dan Naidicz, the district's special education director. "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."

Val Rae Boe will be Karner Blue's principal manager. She and a group of educators and architects have designed the school with special needs students in mind. Until now, most special ed classrooms have been conventional classrooms that have been retrofitted. They're often a poor fit for special needs programs. Karner Blue will be different, Boe said.

"Our goal is the facility itself will be an intervention in many ways," Boe said. "How we can make the educational environment a place where our students will feel welcome and safe and will get their needs met. Many of them have had negative experiences in a school setting. …

"We've tried to design and develop a facility that would support their unique learning styles and support their behavioral needs, mental health needs including speech language and all the different related services the students need."

The school will be divided into four learning pods named for Minnesota's ecosystems — forest, prairie, lake and river. The nature theme will be calming for students, Boe said.

A wing of the school will have LED lighting vs. conventional fluorescents, which can trigger learning and behavior issues for some special needs children. There will be an emphasis on natural light with skylights and strategically placed windows. Efforts have even been made to eliminate long hallways, so if there is a behavior incident, it doesn't become a schoolwide spectacle.

There will be room for mental health providers, language pathologists, occupational therapists, physical therapists and other specialists to work with children.

Boe and Naidicz say the city of Blaine has been very welcoming of the new school.

"Every kid deserves to have an education," Naidicz said.

"We are building this to support them — a place to grow and thrive," Boe said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804