Safe space: New facility meeting demand for students with special needs

Uncategorized: Safe space: New facility meeting demand for students with special needs

Safe space: New facility meeting demand for students with special needs

For children who have undergone trauma, environment can make all the difference.

Story: Christine Walsh

Photos: Christine Walsh, Robin Scholz

For children who have undergone trauma, environment can make all the difference.

That was the thought behind the Rosann Gelvin Noel Education Center (NEC) that students at Cunningham Children’s Home moved into earlier this year. The  child welfare agency which serves the needs of children with emotional, behavioral and special educational needs, had the center in its master plan since 2001.

Youth at Cunningham have a hard time regulating their emotions and checking their behaviors due to past trauma, abuse and neglect. The NEC was designed with larger and more acoustically sensitive classrooms, lighting and furnishings chosen to address the anger, anxiety and fear that minor environmental changes can cause. There’s also a wider variety of learning spaces available for those students who need a quiet place to calm down and work.

Cunningham accepts children through referral and funding from local school districts, the Department of Children and Family Services and the Department of Healthcare and Family Services. Most are between the ages of 11 and 17, 66 percent are male and 80 percent are from within a two-hour radius.

Most  youth have had between five and seven placements before coming to Cunningham. “We’re never anybody’s forever home,” Principal Jennifer Rohn said, noting that the goal range for a stay is 12 to 18 months.

The NEC has both residential and day programs. The Gerber Education Program provides a home and education for 60 youth living in a residential treatment center. Gerber uses Urbana District 116 curriculum and works with the District 116 to transition students back into a traditional classroom after their time in the alternative school. “They’re feeling more confident and comfortable in that setting,” Rohn said.

CIRCLE Academy Education Program started in the early 1990s for children with special educational needs who were enrolled in public schools.

Cunningham uses research in trauma-informed care, which involves how the brain is affected by trauma. “Our goal is to help those kids form new pathways in their brains,” Rohn said. “This building is so much safer.”

Students used to have to travel among four different buildings during the course of the day. “That is not ideal,” Rohn said, explaining that a number of students are on the autism spectrum and therefore can become anxious when environments aren’t controlled. NEC brings Cunningham’s education programs, gym, cafeteria and therapy rooms into one building, letting teachers from Gerber and CIRCLE collaborate.

Of the 66 students enrolled in CIRCLE, 14 have autism, 30 have emotional disabilities, seven have intellectual disabilities, six have other health impairments, eight have specific learning disabilities and one has a traumatic brain injury. There are 25 from Champaign, 13 from Urbana, eight from Rantoul Township High School, six from Rantoul City Schools, two from Mahomet, six from Paxton-Buckley-Loda, two from Tolono, one from St. Joseph, one from Fisher and one from Thomasboro. Additionally, one student from Urbana and one student from Mahomet attend on a part-time basis.

“For students who find it difficult to manage their emotional behaviors there’s less temptation for running or hurting themselves,” Rohn added.

In the past, when students needed one-on-one teaching, the only option was to take them out into the hallway. Now there are pull-out classrooms where students can go for individual instruction. “And we have these wonderful sensory spaces,” Rohn said of rooms designed to help kids calm and focus themselves. “There weren’t places they could go to regulate their bodies and their environments in a positive way. We were thoughtful of those needs.”

In some classrooms, students have flexible seating and can choose to forego a traditional desk in favor of stability balls, wobble stools or resistance bands around chair legs that allow them to fidget and thereby improve focus. Students on the autism spectrum can also sit on beanbag chairs and cover up with a weighted blanket, which can help them reduce anxiety and stress.

The new building’s additional space has been beneficial to students, too, according to Rohn. “Their personal space needs are greater because people have invaded their boundaries,” she said. “It helps them maintain focus and maintain a sense of safety and security.”

Rohn explained that the environmental changes have allowed teachers to have more instructional time.

Most students come to Cunningham after multiple placements. “School is a place where they just haven’t felt accepted,” Rohn said. “Their identity has been really shaky. It’s a self-esteem boost. There’s a greater sense of school pride.”

Rohn added that there’s now a culture of more respect for the school building. Elementary-age students were particularly excited about the move into the new building. “Their faces lit up,” Rohn said. “The first few days, they just kept saying, ‘Thank you.’ It was really neat to see their initial reactions.”

Rohn said one middle school student really struggled to be part of the classroom last year. “He was rarely able to manage himself,” she said. “This year he’s been in the classroom 90 percent of the time and doesn’t need to be in the pull-out room that often. It’s been a wonderful transition for him.”

Rohn has been at Cunningham in some capacity for 16 years and has been principal for six years.

Rohn said the new building is now on par with the work of Cunningham’s staff and its work. “I’ve had a whole lot of pride in being able to show off our program,” Rohn said.

Started when Judge Joseph and Mary Cunningham deeded their home and 15 acres in 1895, Cunningham was originally an orphanage. The United Methodist Women has stewarded Cunningham throughout its 124-year history.

A fundraising campaign for the  NEC started in 2007 but stalled until 2015 after a change in CEOs and an economic downturn. In 2017, ground was broken for the 50,100-square-foot facility on the north side of the campus, and students moved  into the space in January and February. The building includes the Coach Lou and Mary Henson Gymnasium, Beulah and Edward Schmidt Cafeteria, recreation and shared facilities, including therapy rooms.

The Coach Lou and Mary Henson Gymnasium includes space for sports competitions, concerts, plays and all-school meetings. The Hensons became involved with fundraising in 2007 after seeing the gymnasium, which had no temperature controls, no space for spectator seating and a concrete floor. A fitness room, art and therapy rooms are adjacent.

The Beulah and Edward Schmidt Cafeteria will provide equipment and space for the over 120,000 meals the staff typically prepares in a year for students and residents.

Rosann Gelvin Noel, for whom the NEC  is named, passed away unexpectedly last October. She and her husband, Dick, were longtime supporters and provided a matching gift challenge.

Of the $14 million for the facility, about $8.5 million is coming from private donations. About 85 percent of that has been raised, and Director of Advancement Ginger McKee said Cunningham hopes to have the remainder by the fall. “We have support from a lot of different community members and friends of Cunningham  who want to see kids achieve academic success as well as heal from a hurtful past,” she said. “It’s been a great feeling. A lot of people believe in the work being done here.”