Research into cognitive/physical disabilities and behavior/emotional diversities drives design of A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative’s new multi-program facility
Often, special education students and their teachers must make do with standard educational spaces that lack the amenities they need to excel. The A.E.R.O. Therapeutic Center now under construction in Burbank, Illinois will turn that reality on its head.
When construction of the 150,000-square-foot facility finishes in August 2023, it will emerge as one of the largest special education facilities in the Midwest. And every one of its spaces, from the wide corridors and 55 classrooms to the occupational therapy/physical therapy rooms and outdoor courtyards, will be designed exclusively for students with special needs … and for the teachers who work so hard to help them thrive.
Among the features one will encounter within the facility are ceiling-mounted track and harness systems for students who are non-ambulatory, a Home Life Skills Room that simulates a typical apartment, and a Commercial Life Skills Room with a commercial kitchen to help train students for real-world work opportunities.
The focus on special education continues outside the school with two enclosed courtyards, an adaptive playground, a hard surface playground for basketball and other court sports/activities, and a large grass/playfield.
“We are so excited to complete this project,” said A.E.R.O. Executive Director Dr. James W. Gunnell. “The new school and its campus will allow A.E.R.O. to provide a full continuum of special education programs and an array of special education-related services. The safe and nurturing environment will promote inclusive efforts to maximize the success of students with disabilities in the classroom, school, and community. Additionally, we look forward to hosting Special Olympics events for our member districts and the South Cook County communities.”
Everything Under One Roof
For years, A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative has served its 11 member school districts from two 50-year-old buildings that brought a slew of challenges: overcrowding, navigation difficulties, inefficient energy systems, and many other setbacks. Storage was such a problem in one facility that wheelchairs had to be parked in a narrow corridor. Moreover, A.E.R.O. also had to rent classroom space from member districts to house its growing enrollment.
All these frustrations will become a thing of the past, thanks to the new A.E.R.O. Therapeutic Center. The facility, designed by Legat Architects and being built by IHC Construction, combines all A.E.R.O. services under one roof to consolidate resources, bring much more learning and storage space, and optimize operations.
During design, the Legat team met monthly with a core group of superintendents and hosted 20 focus group meetings with teachers and related services providers including instructional technology professionals. Their input played a key role in everything from the overall layout to the design of classrooms.
The A.E.R.O. Therapeutic Center is designed to hold 550 students (ranging from age three to 22) and 375 staff members. The school’s location just 15 miles southwest of Chicago makes it easily accessible for parents who work downtown.
Multiple Programs in One School
The first floor houses multiple programs that serve students with behavioral, cognitive, and physical disabilities, as well as medically fragile students. The floor plan offers ample space for A.E.R.O.’s Early Childhood (EC) and Diagnostics programs, the Functional and Academic Learning Program (FALP), and the Students and Teachers Achieve Results (STAR) Program for students whose diverse abilities are aligned with characteristics along the autism spectrum.
The second floor contains the PRIDE Alternative Program for students with behavioral and/or emotional disorders. The PRIDE program (Personal Responsibility through Independence and Developmental Education) serves elementary through high school students. Additionally, the second floor will host high school and post-high school students enrolled in the STAR and FALP Programs, the focus of which is developing critical academic and life skills. A.E.R.O.’s CONNECT and Bridge programs will also be located on the second floor.
The facility’s floor plan resembles two rotated Vs embracing a central core. Each V holds four self-contained classroom wings (two on the first floor, two on the second) for a total of eight wings. Each wing houses seven classrooms, except the first-floor multi-needs wing that has six classrooms designed for students with the most significant physical and cognitive needs.
“Each classroom wing is designed to address the needs of a specific student population but can be easily adapted as the needs evolve,” said Rob Wroble, project manager with Legat. “The small-scale layout creates ‘neighborhoods’ that promote familiarity and comfort for the students.”
The central location of core spaces (e.g., gymnasium, occupational/physical therapy, exercise rooms, cafeteria) creates separate wings and defines neighborhoods for safety. An array of related services staff members such as board certified behavior analysts, occupational/physical therapists, nurses, social workers, speech language pathologists, and other specialists have offices at the convergence points of wings; this enables them to get to classrooms quickly.
The building will also surround two internal courtyards, each designed to support the therapeutic needs of students in a safe, enclosed outdoor environment.
A Closer Look at Classrooms
The A.E.R.O. Therapeutic Center’s 55 classrooms include three types:
- Multi-needs classrooms on the first floor serve students with the most significant needs and intensive services. Each pair of these classrooms shares a group room, a teaching room/staff lunchroom, two toilet rooms, and two changing rooms with curtains.
- Each pair of first-floor classrooms shares one bathroom and one private changing area.
- Second-floor classrooms, which serve students at a higher physical and cognitive level, resemble those in a more traditional school setting and therefore do not connect to toilet rooms.
The classrooms, at nearly twice the size of A.E.R.O.’s existing classrooms, not only offer more instructional space but also provide more room for the specialized equipment that often impeded movement in the older classrooms.
“Flexible furniture will make every classroom adaptable for different needs,” said Wroble. “Teachers will have access to shared group rooms for pull-out intervention, quiet areas for de-escalation, cubbies or lockers for student belongings, and staff workstations.”
Unlike those in traditional schools, classrooms at A.E.R.O. Therapeutic Center do not have many cabinets or other storage spaces. Instead, each wing offers separate storage rooms for teaching materials. Teachers will use the storage rooms like libraries, borrowing materials as needed.
From Transitions to Biophilia: Research-Driven Design
Compared to the vibrant corridor colors and patterns found within many newer traditional schools, the corridors at A.E.R.O. Therapeutic Center seem reserved. This was intentional—the subdued look exemplifies how Legat’s research into the educational needs of students with physical/mental disabilities and behavioral/emotional disorders drove the design of the facility.
The team discovered, for instance, that sensory-rich environments can be distracting to students with disabilities. The center responds with wider hallways, acoustic treatments, muted color schemes, and rounded classroom entrances. Each wing also has a theme with a different color, texture, and graphic to help students and parents find their way around.
Reducing stressors was one of the most important parts of the design. Legat Director of PreK-12 Education Robin Randall said that transitions can be particularly difficult for students with diversities.
The transition from a car or bus to the entrance can be especially intimidating. A.E.R.O. Therapeutic Center’s six different entrances minimize interactions between different student groups. Additionally, welcoming canopies of light bronze metal panels make the entries easily identifiable and reduce the scale of the building as students enter.
The overall floor plan also considers the need for simplified transitions. “The layout takes into account A.E.R.O. students’ need for routine,” said Randall. “Clear and logical circulation patterns allow students to map their schedules without difficulty.”
The subdivision of corridors allows groups to move in and out of quadrants without interacting with other groups. A movable acoustic wall separates the gym into two halves and divider curtains split each half into two separate areas.
Research also revealed that some students with special needs want to separate from their peers, yet still be a part of a larger space. The design responds in everything from the classroom quiet areas to the nook under the staircase at the main entry.
A.E.R.O. Therapeutic Center embodies the concept of biophilia or the idea that people have an innate wish to connect with nature. Interior spaces not only offer views of the courtyards but also display a nature-inspired mix of materials, colors, textures, and forms.
Concrete Response to Rising Steel Costs
During design of the A.E.R.O. Therapeutic Center, pandemic-fueled market conditions drastically reduced the availability of steel. The result was long lead times and skyrocketing costs.
Legat and IHC turned to precast concrete to minimize the amount of steel used to construct the center. The modularized building uses 12-foot precast panels in a warm gray to reduce costs and speed up construction. Metal panel finishes identify main entries and keep the facility looking modern and welcoming.
The project also uses precast concrete floors and roofs instead of the more traditional steel deck construction. The move avoids delays and helps dampen sound from nearby classrooms. Additionally, thanks to concrete’s strong acoustic properties, occupants are less likely to hear jets from Midway Airport (two miles away) rumbling overhead or squeaks from a massive railway yard (one mile away).
A.E.R.O: Where the Most Vulnerable Students Thrive
By maximizing the resources of its 11 member districts, the new A.E.R.O. Therapeutic Center and its campus are specially designed for the most vulnerable students to foster accessibility to learning.
“The design creates optimal environments for our diverse learners,” said Gunnell. “It encourages creativity and allows for the expansion of innovative approaches to instruction. The new school also permits the expansion of programs and services to meet our future needs of serving students with emotional and mental health needs. The capacity to design programs to address the effects of trauma on a student’s ability to learn and grow emotionally is a high priority for A.E.R.O.”
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