Special services campus gets impactful upgrade
Stepping inside the transitional kindergarten room in the building that, in a matter of days, will become their new campus, Aaron Sauberan and Cate Szczepanski couldn’t contain their giddiness.
They pointed out features that represent light-year improvements from the facility that their schools serving students with special needs—Loma Vista and Innovative Preschool—have settled in, and for, the past 30 years together.
Vertical windows bring in natural light, while ceiling fixtures have dimmer switches to control illumination for children with sensitivity issues. Fabric squares on the wall, at first glance art elements, actually function as sound baffles to limit ambient noise both within the classroom and from the cavernous hallway/multipurpose room beyond the door. A dedicated bathroom occupies a back corner; up front, a touchscreen monitor lowers to kid-friendly sightlines and armlengths.
The transitional kindergarten (TK) room, like every place inside and outside the facility, has ample space for movement. As if to demonstrate, when Szczepanski sat in the lone adult-height chair, Sauberan wheeled her back and forth whimsically—she, arms and legs akimbo, sporting the same childlike grin.
Sauberan, Loma Vista’s principal, and Szczepanski, Innovative’s executive director, showed the CN&R around last Thursday (March 14), just ahead of spring break. Construction crews had final touches to complete. Some classrooms, notably the interior interlinked pair for Innovative, remained unfurnished. Movers needed to bring myriad items.
Nonetheless, when students return Monday (March 25), this is where they’ll come. It’s just around the corner, adjacent to their old school, but in many regards it’s a whole new world.
“The dynamic that I observe is there’s these quiet one-on-one spaces, collaborative group areas, very intentional for what the purpose of [each] place is for kids, depending on what they’re working on,” Szczepanski said. “That’s overarching for the whole building.”
On an intangible level, Sauberan said, “we have been stopping and having staff discussions on what we want to leave behind and what we want to take with us. This gives us a fresh opportunity to look at some of our practices and maybe recognize the ones that were just born out of necessity of having this old building. Maybe they weren’t in the best interest of children necessarily; maybe they were just the best we could do, and now that we have this blank slate, we can critically think about those things.”
Bathroom breaks represent a significant example. Transporting and supervising students, plus assisting those with impairments, have demanded coordination and extra staffing. (Almost on cue, as the administrators discussed logistical challenges, Szczepanski’s walkie-talkie relayed a call requesting a restroom supervisor.)
Each preschool room, as the TK room, connects to a bathroom. An adult restroom with an accessible shower sits across the hall from the two classrooms for students over 18 learning life- and vocational skills.
Adelle Harris, Loma Vista’s TK teacher, said proximity not only to restrooms but also the playground and food service will make a significant impact.
“We’re really reducing some of the demands of daily school living on students who already have challenges,” she said, “so we can get to the instructional meat of their day and really tap into their potential.”
Loma Vista has provided special education at the Marigold Avenue site since 1963. Innovative Preschool formed in 1989 and holds a distinct position, physically and operationally, as a private nonprofit school within a public campus. The property also encompasses Marigold Elementary, where construction continues, as both schools received bond funding for upgrades via Measure K (see “Facilities 101,” Cover story, Oct. 20, 2016). Parking and a portion of the new Marigold campus will cover the old Loma Vista footprint.
Loma Vista’s facility grew outmoded in the 1970s, Sauberan said, when the federal government passed laws governing special education—notably, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act two years later. The preschool partnership further accentuated the gap.
Innovative runs year-round, 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., for kids ages 2 1/2 to 5 1/2. Loma Vista runs on a standard school schedule, with students as young as 3 and old as 22; first- through 12th-graders typically attend classes elsewhere, with extra support from special-ed professionals from the Chico Unified School District, administered by Sauberan and Assistant Principal Jeana Peyton.
Since Loma Vista also houses school psychologists, speech therapists and other districtwide specialists, “this is a central location,” Sauberan said. Families from all schools come for initial assessments. (Therapy provided by California Children’s Services will move to Little Chico Creek Elementary.)
The co-location of Loma Vista and Innovative, he continued, “benefits both of us, because they have a place to be, and have their staff and students exposed to kids with special needs, and our kids with special needs have exposure to those typical preschool things happening.”
Harris has witnessed this from multiple vantage points. She first visited as a prospective parent whose preschooler didn’t communicate beyond a single sound. A high school teacher who’d taken a leave with the birth of her second child, she “felt it like a whoosh when I first walked into the building that this was a special place, that teachers were working at a high level to meet kids with a variety of needs.”
When her first-born finished at Innovative, she said, “he left being able to communicate everything he needed to.” She enrolled her second child, who needed no support, in Innovative as well—and she got her special education credential. This is her sixth year teaching TK at Loma Vista.
Harris had seen the exterior of the new building but only photos of the interior last Thursday. She’s held the view that “it’s not just a shiny new box”; echoing the administrators, she expressed excitement about revisiting methodologies.
“I really see this as an opportunity to leave behind the reasons why we can’t do things and hold on to what we definitely take with us, the dedication to the profession—and then reach higher,” she said. “So, if the logistics are not reasons … let’s keep going. And, then, what’s next?”