Learning environment

Renovations at Concord High School provide a new learning environment for special education

Kate Warburton stood in front of a kitchen island in Concord High School’s new classroom and stirred a pot of thick, gooey chocolate.

On the other side of the island, which was several inches lower than the first side, student Jack Smith, who uses a wheelchair, helped prepare the plastic molds on the counter.

Special education teacher Kari Zwick led the activity, making chocolate lollipops in fun Halloween shapes, while a group of about eight students from the special education program for students aged 18 to 22-year-old at Concord High followed his instructions.

The Transition program has a brand new room this year, after the space was completely renovated over the summer. The access room, which contains a kitchen, washing machine and dryer as well as tables and chairs, is set up to teach students with disabilities how to master “soft skills” such as cooking, doing laundry and make a grocery list for life after Concord High. Friday’s chocolate pop activity was part of a fall lesson where students made candy products, calculating how much they cost to make and how much money they would need to sell the candy to make a profit .

John Fabrizio, the Assistant Superintendent of Student Services, decided the Access Room needed updating soon after it arrived in the district in 2021. The equipment was old, the furniture worn, and the floors uneven, said Fabrizio, and the room was not ergonomically designed for students with disabilities who navigate it daily.

“It didn’t go well,” Fabrizio explained. “The kitchen was sort of hidden in the right corner, older cabinets. Lots of changes were made like plastic bins and things to tidy up the place.

The project that followed was a complete floor-to-ceiling renovation of the special education suite that included both the access room for transitioning students and another classroom for special education students aged 14 to 17 next door. Work began in May and ended in August.

The work was funded by $258,000 in federal COVID-19 relief dollars, specifically a US Rescue Plan grant for Individuals with Disabilities Education Act projects.

From now on, the two rooms are specially equipped for students with disabilities, with many sensory adaptations. The bright green, yellow, and brown color that previously featured on the walls has been replaced with soft grays and blues, and dimmable lighting has been installed throughout.

“It was really important that they had a calming and nurturing environment,” Fabrizio said.

In one corner of the access room is a full kitchen with induction cooker and two ovens – one lower and one upper – sink with space below for wheelchair users, microwave, grill -bread and a stand mixer where students can practice their cooking skills. In the other corner, behind a half-wall built with soundproofing, there is a washing machine, a dryer and a table where students practice washing clothes, including CHS t-shirts. Nearby, there is a cluster of soothing oval sensory chairs that allow students to rock back and forth. Regular classroom chairs all have flexible backs and sturdy legs that allow users to lean back without tipping over.

In the special education classroom next door, more soundproof half walls create cubicles where students can study quietly and there’s an L-shaped sofa to sit and socialize or work on. There are touch screens in both rooms where students do interactive activities. All tables and storage cabinets are on casters, allowing the arrangement of furniture to be changed for different activities.

Fabrizio and facility manager Matt Cashman worked with an occupational therapist, two teachers with disabilities, and the high school’s director of special education to plan the rooms, and also gathered student feedback. One day a company brought in a range of chairs for students to try out, before finally selecting the oval chairs.

“What would life be like if these adults had to live independently? What skills would they need to learn? said Fabrice. “We kind of thought about how somebody works and lives and then how do we incorporate that into a program that allows them to learn that with locally trained instructors so that they can then go and work in stores, Home Depot, restaurants and all those things.

Concord High has a transition coordinator who connects students with extended learning opportunities in the community to prepare them to enter the workforce after high school.

Zwick said the renovations have changed the way he teaches, as students can now move around the space on their own more safely, and key gathering areas like the kitchen island are accessible and at the right height. for everyone. She said she also noticed the difference in the students.

“We wanted the space to be functional with more closet storage so it didn’t have as much visual clutter, so the kids could find things and be more independent,” Zwick said. “That’s exactly what happened. I had no idea that such environmental design could have such an impact on behavior.