New Lake Elmo school serves students with specialized needs

For all students heading back to school in less than a month, starting a new grade level means new and exciting challenges. For some students with complex medical needs, the challenges they face go above and beyond the lessons in the classroom.

Pankalo Education Center is a Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916 facility in Lake Elmo that will be completed for this school year, and will serve students from across the East Metro in kindergarten through eighth grade who have emotional-behavioral disorders (EBD), autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and developmental cognitive disabilities (DCD).

“Almost all of our students, beside having a handicapping disability, will also have a mental health overlay, so they are very complex in their needs,” said District 916 superintendent Connie Hayes. “Many of the students are aggressive because that is how they respond to the anxiety they feel, the lack of understanding of the emotions going on inside, how they respond to their environment.”

For the majority of students with special education needs, school districts will have programs and services in their own facilities to serve their students. However, a small number of students have very specialized and complex needs that require additional services or staff with
specialized training. Pankalo can serve about 130 students at its maximum capacity.

“Our staff is highly trained in how to de-escalate behaviors and to help kids get redirected and teach them their own coping skills,” Hayes said. “The goal is always to help the students progress enough so they can go back to their home school.”

District 916 was developed as a cooperative among school districts — now 14 districts — to provide for complex student needs. It has a similar facility near Blaine called Karner Blue that serves students with EBD, ASD and DCD from the northern member districts.

“The needs of these students are highly specialized, and what we have learned over the last several years is that the traditionally designed school space actually got in the way of students making progress,” Hayes said. “So in the design of the school building, we combine school with hospital mental health, and those components coming together has created what I like to call magic — so that the students can really develop their potential.”

Many of the features that make Pankalo a unique school are not apparent to the untrained eye. Flooring, furniture, playground equipment and even ductwork was carefully selected to create an environment that fits the specific sensory and educational needs of the students. Quiet rooms and sensory rooms allow student to develop skills to be calm and focused. Spaces for staff include additional nurses’ offices, staff bathrooms with showers and even relaxation spaces for staff to care for their own well-being.

Hayes said the two specialized schools — Pankalo and Karner Blue — consolidate programs across the metro area in order to provide better services in specialized facilities, but also reduce costs in transportation and operational costs.

“Coming from the perspective of the taxpayer, our 14 member school districts could never build a school like this in each district, so sharing the cost in a collaborative venture is more cost effective,” Hayes said. “By sharing the cost between member districts, the cost is very minimal for each taxpayer.”

As a cooperative district, District 916 does not have an ability by itself to levy funds to pay for construction and capitol improvements. In order to fund the $21 million construction of the new school in Lake Elmo, the member districts must levy a property tax on their own residents when the 916 school board approves a bonding project.

On Aug. 13, 2015, the Stillwater Area School Board approved its participation in the construction of the Pankalo project.

According to terms of the 2015 bond issued by District 916, the expected tax impact on a home valued at $200,000 for taxes to be paid in 2018 is $12.44. That figure also includes funds for other District 916 projects.

Pankalo Education Center is located at 8568 Eagle Point Blvd. in Lake Elmo.

Contact Alicia Lebens at [email protected]