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Karner Blue Education Center creates a healing learning environment for special education students

Innovative school design focuses on healthier space for students to learn and heal

The new K-8 Karner Blue Education Center (KBEC) located in Circle Pines, MN is groundbreaking in many ways. While most special education classrooms have been retrofitted from conventional classrooms, KBEC is the first school of its kind to create an innovative educational environment designed specifically to support the unique learning styles and behavioral and mental health needs for the students being served—students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Emotional/ Behavioral Disorder (E/BD), Developmental Cognitive Disabilities (DCD) and other health disabilities.

With the goal of creating an environment that supports and encourages learning for students with disabilities, KBEC draws inspiration from the surrounding natural environment, as well as employs design strategies from hospitals and mental health facilities to create what is called a “healing learning environment”.

“The learning environment needs to be a place where these students feel they can succeed and also be a place where teachers and staff have the opportunities to help them grow,” said Val Rae Boe, KBEC principal. “This environment presents those opportunities for everyone, more so because it’s an environment shaped by the vision and experiences of the staff.”

The 70,000 square-foot education center may be similar in size to a typical elementary or K-8 school, but with a capacity of 130 students with 6-8 students per classroom, the floor plan departs from traditional school floor plans to create four unique learning communities and more open and daylight spaces that accommodate different learning styles and encourage exploration. Features of the KBEC healing learning environment include:
  • Circulation – Increased hallway widths and multiple entrance points reduce crowding to limit stress and anxiety.
  • Open Design – Students can access common space areas for alternative learning spaces and movement breaks.
  • Levels of Intervention – A series of sensory, breakout, and alternative spaces allow teachers to support students’ individual needs. 
  • Acoustics – Multiple acoustical considerations create an exceptionally quiet and peaceful learning environment.
  • Lighting – LED and natural lighting, instead of traditional fluorescents, creates a calming effect, keeping students on task and regulated.
  • Connection to Nature – Design elements bring nature indoors to provide a soothing atmosphere and create a controlled outdoor space for students to learn, play and relax. 
The school opened in August and will welcome the inaugural class of approximately 90 students through its doors on the first day of school on Tuesday, September 2. As a Level IV special education school, students cannot directly enroll in the program, but rather are referred to KBEC by their home school district.

“We are so excited to see the look on our students’ faces when they walk into the school for the first time and watch them explore their new surroundings,” said Boe.
Click here to read the story behind the name Karner Blue Education Center.