LAKE ELMO, Minn.—Connie Hayes likes to think there is a little bit of magic in the design of the new Pankalo Education Center.
The superintendent of the Northeast Metro Intermediate School District says designers considered every detail in planning the new school for students who have complex special needs. The school, which is set to open in September, will be located in Lake Elmo—14 miles east of St. Paul in suburban Washington County.
"We know our kids need a different approach than they would get in a traditional setting," Hayes said.
That means lots of natural light, softened acoustics and classrooms that can quickly be adapted to students' changing needs. Hayes notes that school environment plays an important role in educating students on the autism spectrum, with cognitive and developmental delays or with emotional and behavioral disorders because many of them are sensitive to light and sound.
Pankalo's curriculum will have an arts focus that encourages students to showcase their creativity in a calming atmosphere.
"This is really a marriage between a behavioral health care setting and a school setting," Hayes said of the Lake Elmo school.
Pankalo, a combination of Greek words for "complete" and "beauty," is the second K-8 school the Northeast Metro district has recently opened. The Karner Blue Education Center, named for an endangered butterfly, opened in 2014 in Blaine.
Northeast Metro is a collaborative of 14 districts that stretch from St. Francis to South Washington County; it enrolled about 800 students last school year. The $21 million Pankalo school was paid for with member districts' funds designated for school infrastructure.
The new schools were built because staff struggled to serve students in a traditional school setting. The district also is in the process of remaking a high school it operates in Little Canada.
"The need is not going away," Hayes said. "The need is probably going to grow."
Karner Blue had more than 100 students last school year; Pankalo has capacity for about 130 but expects to enroll about 80 this fall. Students will be broken up into four "neighborhoods," each with five classrooms and five to seven students per class.
Amy Johncox, principal of Pankalo, said member districts refer students who are in crisis and unable to function in a typical school setting to her school. The goal is to teach those students the skills they need to eventually transfer back to their traditional schools.
School leaders say the district's success rate has improved since the opening of the first specially designed school in 2014. They expect Pankalo to continue that trend.
Syreeta Wilkins, spokeswoman for the Northeast Metro district, said Karner Blue and Pankalo are examples of what happens when educators focus on what it takes to help students with complex special needs thrive.
"Every kid should have the opportunity to go to an amazing school," Wilkins said.