MODESTO -- In the center of a darkened room, a young man plays in a well of clear plastic bubbles bathed in changing pastel shades of light while soothing music plays and an aide stands at the ready. To his left burble about a dozen softly lit giant tubes, like latter-day lava lamps, and straight ahead a touch-activated computer screen generates kaleidoscope patterns in greens and golds.
Even the room's beanbag chairs offer gentle songs and long sprays of fiber-optic lights that surround the sitter with a rainbow of starry pinpoints. But the most popular feature is a 6-by-8-foot projected picture that is motion-sensitive. Jump into the pictured leaves and they scatter. Wave through clouds and a field of grass waves back.
Despite its spalike ambience and new age vibe, this is a school room. The sensory room brings stimulation to the medically fragile and calm to the intensely aggressive.
It is a showpiece of the new John F. Kennedy School, a $16.3 million, 34,450-square-foot facility serving about 75 students with severe disabilities through the Stanislaus County Office of Education.
"The new facility provides a better learning environment for our students," said Tom Changnon, Stanislaus County Superintendent of Schools. The county office will next modernize the Margaret L. Annear Early Intervention School next door. Funding came from the state allocation board using bonds passed for school modernization and construction.
Designers scoured ideas from around the globe to serve this school's two populations, SCOE Director of Special Education Sarah Grantano said. The campus serves those with such formidable medical needs or potentially explosive behaviors that parents and educators chose to set them apart from neighborhood schools.
Accessible for all
Many of the first group arrive each day with a personal nurse. Their double-size classrooms have room for medical equipment, even beds, and an assortment of sitting and standing apparatus.
Sterilization procedures keep the rooms scrupulously clean. Even the sensory room's ball pit must be sanitized after every use and scrubbed down to its corners regularly.
Oversize bathrooms give wheelchairs with attendants plenty of room and have banks of cupboards for toileting supplies. Ceiling-mounted tracks circle through and around the rooms, allowing students to be moved between areas and equipment using strap-hung slings.
The lift system, believed to be unique for a school, has cut down on back injuries, said Principal Tami Cervantes.
Injuries permeated life in the old JFK, a mazelike building further south in the same sprawling Stonum Road complex just north of Hatch Road.
In November there were 32 injuries to staff members serious enough to be reported to the state Division of Workers' Compensation, 26 of them requiring blood-borne pathogens documentation. From August 2011 through January 2012, there were 20 serious injuries to staff members, including one fracture and seven strains or sprains. Of the 20, one happened during routine care for a student and 17 were listed as initiated by students, who can be up to 22 years old in special education.
"When you see the high numbers of students to staff ratios, it's because it's necessary. We're really dealing with some very tough things," Grantano said. Agitated students, several over 6 feet tall and weighing up to 300 pounds, need to be kept safe from each other, too, she noted.
Serving the 75 students are about 70 staff members.
In the new facility, the halls are 12 to 14 feet wide, giving ample room for wheelchairs and large students to pass without crowding. Exit doors have alarms and a 15-second delay to give adults time to catch speedy escape artists.
"We have flight risk students who don't have any concept of safety," Cervantes said.
Plenty of room for play
But in keeping with the school's philosophy, the building is designed in hope and light as well. Doors leading to the play area open with a wave or a touch, far easier for students with physical disabilities.
A mellow taupe color scheme and lots of large sunny windows add to the sense of calm and openness. Fenced courtyards open between wings of classrooms, one studded with waist-high planter boxes. Watering the tiny gardens, a coveted pastime, offers an incentive for good behavior, Cervantes said.
Students walk, run or trike around an outdoor track. A large playground's flooring looks like sand but is springy as gymnastic mats. Fake rocks rise to table height. Mounted bouncing poles, a slide and four-chain swings with velcro belts stand, accessible to wheelchairs and adult intervention, under massive shade structures.
Inside play areas include a mountain mural complete with harnesses and climbing holds. Floor-level trampolines are sturdy enough for wheelchair riders and aides to bounce together.
A music room holds a grant-bought floor-level piano keyboard activated by feet that can light up a string of notes from or record to an MP3 player. Cervantes is fund raising to buy guitars and recorders.
A vocational center holds kitchen and laundry equipment for training students to cook and clean in life skills classes.
Classrooms have huge touchscreens, in tables for seated students to wheel up to, or wall-mounted to be seen by the class. Teacher Ronda Howser uses hers for a whole-class calendar session each morning, then has students, ages 12 to 18, work on basic math and language skills.
A Dr. Seuss alphabet program and Cookie Monster word-recognition game are student favorites, she said.
"Our students are developmentally at a younger age," Howser said. Many have never done well with pen and paper, but show unexpected aptitude using the cheery early-age software.
"In this building, we have a lot more tools to find their capabilities," she said.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2339.
WHAT: Community members are invited to tour the new John F. Kennedy School that serves about 75 students with special needs
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday
WHERE: 1202 Stonum Road, Modesto, just north of Hatch Road