Renovations at Concord High School feature a new learning environment for special education – Concord Monitor | Team Cansler

Kate Warburton stood at a kitchen island in Concord High School’s newest classroom, stirring a pot of thick, melting chocolate.

On the other side of the island, a few inches lower than the first side, student Jack Smith, who uses a wheelchair, helped set the plastic molds out on the countertop.

Special education teacher Kari Zwick led the activity, making chocolate pops in fun Halloween shapes, while a group of about eight students from the special education program for students ages 18 to 22 at Concord High followed her instructions.

The Transition program has a brand new space this year after the space underwent a complete renovation over the summer. The access room, which includes a kitchen, washer and dryer, and tables and chairs, is designed to teach students with disabilities “soft skills” like cooking, doing laundry and making a shopping list to prepare for life after Eintracht hoch. Friday’s Chocolate Pop activity was part of a fall lesson in which students made candy and figured out how much it cost and how much money they would have to sell the candy for to make a profit.

Student Services Assistant Superintendent John Fabrizio decided the access space needed an upgrade shortly after it joined the district in 2021. The equipment was old, the furniture worn, and the floors uneven, Fabrizio said, and the space wasn’t ergonomically designed for the disabled students who navigate it on a daily basis.

“It didn’t flow well,” explained Fabrizio. “The kitchen was a little tucked away in the right hand corner, older cabinets. A lot of mods have been introduced, like plastic containers and things to store locations.”

The project that followed was a complete, floor-to-ceiling renovation of the special needs suite, which included both the access room for transition students and another classroom for special needs students ages 14-17 next door. Work started in May and ended in August.

The work was funded with $258,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds, specifically a grant from the American Rescue Plan earmarked for Disability Education Act projects.

Both rooms are now handicapped accessible, including many sensory-friendly adjustments. The previously vibrant greens, yellows and browns on the walls have been changed to soft grays and blues, and dimmable lighting has been installed throughout.

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

In a corner of the access room is a fully equipped kitchen with an induction hob and two ovens – one lower and one higher – a sink that has space for wheelchair users, a microwave, a toaster and a stand mixer for students to practice their cooking skills . In the other corner, behind a soundproof half-wall, are a washing machine, a dryer, and a table where students practice washing clothes, including CHS T-shirts. Nearby is a group of soothing oval sensory chairs that allow students to rock back and forth. The regular classroom chairs all have flexible backrests and sturdy legs that allow the user to recline without tipping over.

In the special education classroom next door, soundproof half-walls create cubicles for students to study quietly, and there’s an L-shaped couch for sitting, socializing, or working. Both rooms have touchscreen monitors on which students conduct interactive activities. All tables and storage cabinets are on wheels, which allows the furniture arrangement 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 spaces, and also gathered input from students. One day, a company brought in a range of chairs for the students to test before finally choosing the oval ones.

“What would life be like if these adults had to live on their own? What skills would they need to build in?” said Fabrizio. “We sort of thought backwards about how someone works and lives, and then how do we build that into a program that allows them to learn that with trained instructors in the field, so they can go out and do it in stores, Home Depot, can work, restaurants and all those things.”

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

Zwick said the renovations have transformed the way she teaches, with students now being able to move around the room more confidently and congregational areas like the kitchen island are accessible and at the right height for everyone. She said she noticed the difference in the students as well.

“We wanted the space to be functional and to have more storage in closets to not have as much visual clutter so kids could find things and be more independent,” Zwick said. “That is exactly what happened. I had no idea that environmental design could have such an impact on behavior.”

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