School board meeting focuses on special needs

Mary Bailey
Community Editor

A work experience program for students with disabilities, and a school district set up entirely to serve special students, were the main topics at the March 20 Forest Lake Area School Board meeting.

Project SEARCH

An international program to make sure students with disabilities have competitive employment after high school, Project SEARCH takes high school students to work at Fairview Lakes Medical Center.

District 831 Special Education Director Deb Wall introduced teacher Lesa Genovese, job coach Lori Schleicher and Special Education Coordinator Chad Erichsrud, who supervises the program. She said the program was begun five years ago by Area Learning Center Principal Kelly Lessman.

Students with disabilities have a 17 percent chance of employment after high school, but this figure jumps to 67 percent if the students participate in Project Search.

The local program is a collaboration between the school district, Fairview Lakes Medical Center, three counties, the Minnesota Department of Education, and the Department of Employment and Economic Development.

The nine-month unpaid work program places students in nutrition, environmental services or storekeeper positions.

The ultimate goal is to help program graduates find competitive employment in the community, doing a job they like that pays at least minimum wage.

Students currently involved in Project SEARCH told about their experiences. One, working as a storekeeper, restocks items, checks for expiration dates and does inventory. One working in environmental services said she mops stairs, vacuums the ER waiting area and cleans bathrooms.

The job coaches told of a shy student, who does not like to talk in public above a whisper, learning to make eye contact and ask what to do next.

Four students are enrolled this year, three from the Forest Lake district and one from Chisago Lakes. The program can accommodate eight to 10.

“Project SEARCH has really been a bright spot for us,” school board member and Fairview Lakes employee Kathy Bystrom said.

District 916

Superintendent Connie Hays and Special Education Director Dan Naidicz told the School Board about offerings at Northeast Metro Intermediate School District 916. Forest Lake joined 916 in November to receive specialized programs for students with serious mental illness or cognitive deficiency.

Three intermediate districts were formed in the late 1960s, Hays said – 916, 917 and 287 – to provide services for students who have needs that individual districts can’t provide, helping member districts be more efficient and financially accountable.

District 916 has 11 member districts – Centennial, Columbia Heights, Forest Lake, Mahtomedi, Mounds View, North St. Paul-
Maplewood-Oakdale, Roseville, South Washington County, Spring Lake Park, Stillwater and White Bear Lake – and also provides services to other districts under an affiliate fee schedule as space is available.

Students are referred to 916 for special education and also career and technical programs. Students can choose to attend the 916 alternative learning center.

The teaching is “creative and holistic,” Hays said. “We’re willing to take on any kind of challenge. Our goal is turn out a young person who can go into the community and function to the highest of their ability, to live happily. We are never satisfied with being mediocre.”

The new 70,000-square-foot Karner Blue school, scheduled to open this fall, will serve special needs students with autism spectrum disorder and emotional-behavioral disorders.

Located in Blaine near Interstate 35W and the National Sports Center, the building is designed to be especially durable. It will have key-carded doors, wide halls, reduced sight lines, separate entrances for different programs, an exit for emergency personnel and intervention spaces.

Named for the endangered Karner Blue butterfly, native to oak savannas in eastern Minnesota, the building has a nature theme and is situated next to a protected area for the butterflies.

Fourteen Forest Lake students currently attend District 916 programs, and some of them will make the transition to Karner Blue when it opens.

After the regular meeting, the board went into closed session to discuss a student expulsion.

The vote to expel was unanimous, with member Erin Turner absent.