This past summer, the Walker School completed an extensive renovation to its campus, creating new classrooms, a gym, and other improvements to benefit its students who have various behavioral, emotional, and social challenges. Located in Needham, Mass., the Walker School is a private special education school for students ages five through 13.
Previously, the Walker School had three buildings, one of which included a hexagon-shaped building from the 1960s, which their architect noted had “outlived its useful life,” said Danielle Wetmore, M.Ed., the principal at Walker.
It wasn’t conducive for learning or for kids with social, emotional challenges.” It was loud and easy to get lost, and didn’t have central air conditioning, she said.
Now, instead of three buildings, Walker has one two-story building, which houses all their classrooms. Being in a single building has helped to facilitate collaboration between younger and older students. For example, students participate in “reading buddies,” where older students read to younger students, and vice versa, she said.
Being in a single building also means smoother transitions. Wetmore noted that some students move classrooms for math and reading groups “to really individualize students’ strengths and needs.” The two oldest classrooms—consisting of sixth through eighth graders—switch classrooms for science and social studies, she said.
Being in a single building also means a quicker response from staff when behavioral challenges arise, Wetmore said. Every classroom has up to nine students and three adults: a special education teacher, teacher’s assistant, and a direct care counselor.
All new classrooms contain flexible seating to meet students’ movement needs, along with Google TVs, which provide “flexibility with our hands-on learning and technological capabilities.”
We’re a therapeutic school, but we don’t sacrifice academics, and we meet kids where they’re at,” Wetmore said. For instance, every year they hold a spelling bee, poetry slam, and winter pageant. Students also take the MCAS.
The renovated building features other beneficial additions. There are two “chill zones”— with one on each floor—which have bean bags and comfortable furniture, and don’t have doors, Wetmore said. Students can use these spaces to study or take a break.
Kids are able to leave the classroom for several minutes when they need some space, and teachers can still see them to “make sure they’re using strategies appropriately and being safe with their body.”
There’s also a recreational room for children to shoot baskets or relax on the couch, Wetmore said.
In addition, they built an entirely new large structure that is used as both a rec space and gym and includes basketball hoops at regulation height, she said.
Residential buildings at Walker were renovated, as well. The school has 36 residential students (and 54 day students), who live in four residential houses within two buildings, Wetmore said. All bedrooms were converted into single rooms. They built a connector, a structure that unites both buildings and contains commercial laundry, a family center, and a recreational room.
The family center also includes a stove. Wetmore noted that this gives families who visit their kids—many of whom come from different cultures—a space to make home-cooked meals.
“Kids feel good in the new space,” Wetmore said. “They’ve all talked about how excited they are to be in the new classrooms.”
Margarita Tartakovsky, MS, is a Florida-based freelance writer and an associate editor at PsychCentral.com.
By Margarita Tartakovsky, MS