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Growing school seeks state help for new facility

When the Northern Lights Academy was created seven years ago by the 12 school districts served by the Northern Lights Special Education Cooperative, it gave those schools a place to send students they couldn't serve on their own.

It also gave the students - who might have autism or significant emotional and behavioral disabilities and/or mental health needs - a place where they could be surrounded by classmates with similar needs and teachers specially trained to help them. Northern Lights Academy (NLA) serves students from Barnum, Carlton, Cloquet, Cromwell-Wright, Esko, Hermantown, Lake Superior, McGregor, Moose Lake, Proctor, Willow River, and Wrenshall school districts.

"Our job - when the school was created - was to provide intense services to students who needed to learn skills, so that they could return to their districts and be more successful. So we're meant to be a short-term facility," said Barbara Mackey, principal and assistant special ed director for NLA, adding that students may stay anywhere from a few months to years, depending on their needs.

Before NLA, those students would have been using home-based services for about five hours a week, or attending a school that wasn't able to completely serve them.

"Creating that collaborative school ... allowed us to bring the students in who needed a higher level of support," Mackey said.

NLA was so successful, it quickly outgrew the first two classrooms in the basement of Cloquet's Garfield school plus one at Our Savior's Lutheran Church.

The school then expanded into Carlton High School and left Our Savior's, leasing four classrooms there and increasing maximum capacity from 26 to closer to 50. Currently, the Garfield classrooms serve grades K-5, and Carlton serves grades 4-12. There are enough students with autism on a waiting list that they could fill another classroom right now, Mackey said. Student population generally fluctuates between 40 and 50, as students come and return to their home district.

Growing pains

For several years now, the cooperative has been searching for a facility large enough to house all of their students in one place, with room to grow, with no luck. So they've taken their cause to the legislature.

Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, and Rep. Jeff Dotseth, R-Kettle River, introduced bills containing a request for $6 million in state bonding assistance to pay for approximately half of a new facility. Legislators for the other member school districts, including Reps. Zeleznikar, Skraba, and Lislegard and Sen. Hauschild, also signed on to the bill. Both bills are still in committee.

Northern Lights is a cooperative school district. They don't have taxing authority, but state legislators did approve a $65-per-pupil-unit cooperative tax for outstate cooperatives. Northern Lights has not yet implemented that tax in each of its 12 districts, which would have to be passed by each school board.

Mackey said they don't know where a new or remodeled facility would go, but they need a fairly central location, not far from Interstate 35, because each district is responsible for transporting its students to and from NLA.

"We serve everybody from the Lake Superior district all the way to Willow River and over to McGregor," she said.

Mackey hopes getting the word out about the school and its needs may also lead to other opportunities.

"I would be happy to talk to anybody who is looking for a project that they would like to, you know, become passionate about, or who might want to donate in some way," she said. "Because every kid deserves somebody who's championing them."

Different needs

While they are grateful to have the space for a school, having an average of 45 students divided between two sites means Mackey isn't always there when a crisis strikes.

It also means their classrooms are not optimal for the students they serve. Both Garfield and Carlton are older schools, with Garfield having the distinction of being the only Cloquet school to survive the 1918 Fires.

Sharing the space with other schools means NLA students hear bells and announcements intended for the other school.

"It interrupts whatever their class is doing," Mackey said.

She described how their students with autism are sandwiched between the shop and the band room in Carlton.

"Some of the sounds of the Carlton High School building causes disruption in our students' days," she said.

"We do need a facility that is designed specifically for the students that we serve," Mackey said.

What does that mean?

It means limited access, so students can't get upset and go running outside through a wide array of exits.

"When they become dysregulated, that 'fight or flight' response sometimes occurs," Mackey said. "Sometimes taking off is how they manage the big emotions that they experience."

Regular school classrooms are also not ideal.

She points out fluorescent lights in the Garfield classrooms, covered with fabric to make them less harsh. At least that classroom has windows.

Across the hall, a second classroom is divided, with a space at the back and around the corner where 2-3 students can go to work with another adult. Behind that is a room where kids can go to decompress, by sitting on soft chairs or crawling inside a sensory boat, which looks like big squishy mats sewn together on each end with a space in the middle for someone to squeeze into.

"Sometimes students need different kinds of sensory input, or they might need to do something to get that energy out," Mackey said.

Down the hall is another cluster of three small rooms, with "crash pads" and space for smaller meetings. Sometimes students might need a nap, or they might throw bean bags back and forth with someone. Or meet with a school social worker or get some mental health help.

"Other times we get them running - you can see lines on the hallway floor," Mackey said of the multicolored lines down and around the hall.

Equal ground

A new facility would put their students on more equitable footing with the world. The elementary age kids could have safe outdoor space and a playground. All students would have access to well-designed sensory rooms, breakout spaces, even an indoor swing.

They do good work at Northern Lights Academy, but Mackey knows it could be better.

Mackey said the first students they helped graduated last year. One is in the workforce, the other in supportive employment. They have younger students looking at the trades.

"Many of our students just have not had whatever the right instruction was for them when they were young," she said. "And they needed some more intense instruction in some of those skills, but they're all making

progress and getting

toward graduation."