The District 211 Higgins Education Center was renovated to centralize existing educational programs serving students with special needs. Prior to relocation, the district utilized old office buildings to house these programs. These buildings had few windows, creating a dark and uninviting space. In addition, the locations were far away from the main campuses, creating a disconnect from the students in these programs and the rest of the high school population. Renovating a facility adjacent to one of the high schools has allowed all of these programs to be centralized into one location, as well as bring the students closer to the rest of the district.
ARCON’s challenge was to accommodate the unique planning, space, and circulation needs of four very distinct and functionally independent sets of users. We worked closely with representatives from each group to understand their unique needs. The existing building was zoned into four distinct areas, each with its own access, circulation, and amenities.
The center serves three distinct populations: students with cognitive disabilities, students with emotional disabilities, and students with autism spectrum or other social communication disorders. The facility also houses the District’s community school program; a new after-school initiative providing social services and support to assist families with wellness, education, and language.
The building program presented the need for several unique spaces that are not typically found in a traditional high school setting. As part of the Adult Transition Program, a Life Skills Room was created teaching students how to perform tasks such as cooking and doing laundry. As part of New Endeavors, a program that serves students on the autism spectrum, Sensory Rooms were created providing therapy through special lighting, music, and objects to students with limited communication skills. As part of Academy South, a program that assists students with emotional disabilities, Time Out or Cool Down Rooms were created, providing a break-out space for students that need to be momentarily separated from the large group. A Community/Multi-purpose Room is housed on the second floor that is to be shared by the New Endeavors and Academy South Programs.
As the programs housed in this facility are non-traditional, it was important to design learning spaces that allow for flexibility within the educational setting. Staff and students can work with the entire program, whole classes, small groups, or independently, depending on the current situation. They can also run multiple groups at varying levels and content areas, catering to the specific educational needs of the students.
The integration of technology, such as projectors and Apple TVs, creates a digitally rich learning environment that will help enhance skills such as public speaking, data analysis, and presentation. Having multiple forms of media also allows teachers to work with one group while using a monitor, while another group uses the projector screen. The installation of white boards and the use of Idea Paint create additional visual outlets for students to express their ideas.
It was imperative that the design create a connection between the curriculum and the learning environment, as well as be unique to the district’s specific educational goals and vision. It was also important to design a space that allowed students to feel safe and secure. The district quotes, “Being in this facility allows us to be immediately responsive and address our students’ needs while trying to eliminate the loss of academic and instructional time.”