FARGO — The new Explorer Academy to provide specialized help for Fargo students who face behavioral challenges is taking shape, and although it might not be ready by the start of school on Aug. 25, it likely will in early September.
City leaders toured the new facility on Monday night, Aug. 2, as the City Commission, School Board and Park Board all met together for a joint meeting to discuss their current and future plans.
Superintendent of Schools Rupak Gandhi said the uniquely designed building is a "school within a school" as it's being constructed on the south side of Lewis & Clark Elementary School at 1780 17th St. S.
Gandhi said it will help students with neurological conditions that can affect their ability to control behavior to have a specialized setting to develop their academic, social and personal skills to transition back into the general education setting.
The building is divided into two pods, one for elementary students and another for middle school students, with four classrooms in each pod.
The building has many unique design factors that research has shown has helped students facing difficulties. Elements such as dimmable LED lighting, lots of natural light, soft movable furniture and specialized entrances are present.
The atmosphere is silent. As examples, the specially designed air units operate quietly and the fire alarms are developed with a more monotone sound.
"We're really trying to reduce the triggers," Gandhi said, adding plans for the building were developed with the help from students who will be using it.
Input from students was given to school officials on what made them frustrated or angry in a regular school setting. There were also numerous meetings with parents, community specialists and staff.
The different atmosphere, often determined by looking at similar facilities in other schools across the region, also involves structural design features such as curved walls and few sharp edges, even on window sills, that provide a safer environment.
Even the artwork that will adorn some of the walls are designed to provide a more calming atmosphere.
The building has several "calming rooms' where students can enter. Gandhi pointed out that there are no doors on the rooms as the Fargo district has a strict policy against seclusion as a way to control behavior.
Another key feature of the facility is a sensory gymnasium, thought to be the largest in the state.
A portion of the addition will be leased to TNT Fitness for the sensory gym with its unique designs including a foam lined pit which can be used by other district students at times, too.
As for learning, the facility will focus on science, technology, engineering, art and math with special behavioral health services.
The academy is a long time in the making as parents and school board members have been arguing for and against such a facility. Some parents have said there is a lack of training for special education teachers and that schools don’t always follow a student’s individualized education program, the legal document that outlines things such as academic goals, accommodations and de-escalation tactics.
However, there is currently no separate setting in the area for students with more extreme behaviors. Students with disabilities, including autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and emotional disturbance disorders, are generally educated alongside peers without such disabilities in neighborhood schools.
Disruptions in regular classrooms have also been of concern and it's hoped the academy can help in those situations with better learning environments for all students.