Unit 5 board members joined Normal Town Council members for a tour of the new addition at Colene Hoose Elementary School on Tuesday night.
Unit 5’s board approved a $1 million contract for the work back in July. Land dedication fees collected by the Town of Normal from developers served as the primary funding source for the project.
Unit 5 spokesperson Dayna Brown said the final cost totals about $1.12 million, with the town contributing about $720,000 and Unit 5 covering the remaining $400,000.
Adam Zbrozek, the school’s principal, said the conversation began a few years ago with the need for larger classrooms for the school’s special education program.
“It’s a program that is growing in numbers, and as a district we wanted to be sure we were providing the best possible service that we could,” he said.
Colene Hoose serves as a hub for the district, supporting children kindergarten to fifth grade from 17 elementary buildings.
Zbrozek said the goal of the program is not to funnel children with special needs away from their schools.
Rather, “We want to help them learn the skills and dispositions they need in order to work with and amongst all the other students that may be in other classrooms,” with the goal of eventually reintegrating students into general education at their home schools, he said.
Zbrozek gave the group a look inside the school’s old special education facilities, including a “calming space” at the end of a narrow hallway.
Zbrozek explained the small padded room with a glass window is for students “who may be unsafe for themselves or others in the classroom,” Zbrozek explained.
“If there’s a physical concern, at that point we definitely have to work with students a little bit differently, and for students who struggle with emotional regulation that is something we have to do on a regular basis with this program,” he said.
The addition includes three new, larger padded rooms. They’ll eventually be outfitted with speakers so that teachers can play soothing music or send reassuring messages to children in distress.
Zbrozek said the calming spaces are a last resort.
“It’s a safety decision. Is this student being unsafe for themselves, or is this student being unsafe for others—that’s kind of how we filter the use of that. We would never want to use it unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
With just three small classrooms, and seven to eight students plus three to four teachers in each room, the old facility put everyone in close quarters.
With the addition the program now offers four full-size classrooms, nearly tripling the available learning space, Zbrozek said.
The rooms are painted blue, a color shown to be naturally soothing, Zbrozek said. Teachers can dim and brighten the lights as needed. Each student has their own desk that can be pushed together for group work. Some of the chairs are made to move along with fidgety students.
The classrooms are separated by grade, except for two fourth and fifth grade classrooms that group students by their typical behavior patterns: internalizer or externalizer.
“An internalizer probably holds things in a little bit more,” Zbrozek explained. “An externalizer, when they get frustrated, you know it.”
He said grouping the students this way helps teachers tailor the environment to the students’ needs.
There’s also a commons where students can store their belongings, eat meals and take part in group activities.
Like the classrooms, the walls are painted blue, except for two white walls. Zbrozek said those are destined to become student murals—one by the first class of students in the space, the second for subsequent classes to leave their mark.
Unit 5 school board member Amy Roser has two children attending Colene Hoose.
“This is just a really wonderful addition,” she said. “The culture here is very special, very accepting, and it’s just a really unique place. But what this does to elevate the education that we can provide for students in this program is really cool.”
Zbrozek said work is nearly complete on the new bus lane that accompanies the addition.
“A lot of our students worry or have some anxiety about transitions,” he explained. “So changes from one thing to another or one place to another may be something that causes them to have a reaction, whether it’s an emotional reaction or not.”
The new bus lane will mean students are dropped off about 150 yards closer to their classrooms.
“They go right into a space that they’re comfortable with, they’re safe, and they know that this is an environment that is for them, and I feel like that is something that is a life changer for them.”
Zbrozek said the school has also worked closely over the last two months with state Rep. Dan Brady’s office to hopefully secure funding for a new playground at Colene Hoose.
Students officially moved into the addition Jan. 8.
“That was one of the best parts of welcoming kids back after the holiday break, was being able to open up the doors and say, ‘We built this for you—let’s go,’” said Zbrozek.
“The town council of Normal is fantastic for helping us out with this,” he added. “This is a life-changing event for our students. Our staff who are working down here couldn’t be happier.”
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