Board members tour new building

Published 9:35 am Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Special education cooperative presently serves 50


By Deb Nicklay, Austin Daily Herald

AUSTIN — Austin and Albert Lea school board members got a first look at the finished Austin Albert Lea Special Education Cooperative Monday and praise was given for the $3.8 million renovation of the former Corcoran Center.

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The cooperative opened after the holiday break.

“You should be very proud,” Austin School Board member Peggy Young told staff. “It is a beautiful building.”

The structure, formerly a Catholic school and then a day care center, is divided into two wings: one will for EBD (emotional behavioral disorder) students. The other will host SUN (students with unique needs) classrooms.

About 50 attend the school at present, Venem said. About 40 are from Austin, and 10 from Albert Lea. The districts are already getting calls from other districts who want to send students to the school. For right now, they are keeping the population for just Albert Lea and Austin children, “until the dust settles a bit,” said Albert Lea Area Schools Superintendent Mike Funk.

The students, who had been housed in the high school annex or at Neveln this year before the doors opened, are more than pleased with their new quarters.

“As they came through the doors (for the first time), their eyes got just huge,” said Heidi Venem, supervisor of the facility. Having a facility just for them, “is just super exciting,” she added.

For some students, she said, the new facility has “changed their behaviors. It has made a huge difference being here. They are taking ownership.”

The facility is designed specifically for the unique needs of the students. Some rooms have calming rooms; others have smaller rooms that are not sensory rooms, but a one-person study room offers a place where a student “can decompress” for a while. Even the furniture — from chairs that rock, to others that are raised — all provide comfort to students who sometimes have sensory issues that prevent them from learning.

Venem said the largest group served — 24 students — are high school aged. The youngest is in third grade.

“We are so fortunate to have this; it meets the needs of these students,” said Albert Lea Special Education Director Tami Alphs.

Albert Lea Board Chairman Ken Petersen agreed.

“It is fantastic,” he said. “Fantastic that we can deliver these services that these kids need. It is a very functional building. It’s also nice to see the collaboration between schools.”

Austin board Chairwoman Angie Goetz agreed.

“I think it is the very best we can do for our kids — provide the best services” in a beautiful building.

“It is excellent,” she added.

An open house for the public is planned from 4 to 7 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 13.