MONTEVIDEO — Montevideo dedicated a new educational learning center for this region on Wednesday, and it comes just in time: It’s easily expected to be reach full enrollment before the year’s end.
Schools across Minnesota are seeing a continued rise in the number of students in need of special education services, including many who need help that can only be provided outside of the traditional classroom in centers such as this one.
The number of students enrolled in the educational learning centers operated by the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative serving this region has grown by 12 to 16 percent in each of the last five years, according to Bailey Rettmann, regional director for the learning centers.
“We have not seen the ceiling hit,’’ said Rettmann of expectations that the numbers will continue to grow. “We don’t know where that ceiling is.”
In rural areas, students with special needs often must be transported long distances to the educational learning centers. One of the students at the Montevideo school had been making a daily, one-way trip of 75 miles to a learning center before this school opened.
The new school on the east end of Montevideo is unique for a rural area. It was designed specifically for its role, while other rural learning centers are often in facilities retrofitted for them.
Along with classrooms and programming for students with autism and learning and behavioral challenges, the educational learning center in Montevideo also includes a Ready Clinic. It offers early intervention for youths ages birth to age 6 who are referred by physicians and mental health professionals.
It’s the first Ready Clinic to be opened by the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative, but executive director Cliff Carmody hopes to eventually replicate what is in Montevideo at the other five educational learning centers it operates. There’s not a lot of access in rural areas to proactive, preventative help, he explained.
Carmody and members of the cooperative’s board of directors joined with the Montevideo community to host the dedication ceremony and an open house. The 22,500-square-foot facility offers lots of natural lighting, spacious classrooms and security. It is divided into two pods to provide services for students based on whether autism and learning difficulties or behavioral challenges are to be addressed.
A unique partnership in Montevideo made it possible, according to Carmody.
The city of Montevideo donated the land for the school to its Economic Development Agency. The EDA obtained more than $5.2 million in financing to build the school based on designs developed by the service cooperative. Lease payments by the cooperative will retire the debt.
The doors first opened Sept. 9, or later than hoped. A brutal winter and wet spring took away 45 construction days.
Opening a sixth center makes it possible for the Southwest West Central Service Cooperative to reduce travel distance for many of the nearly 200 students enrolled in the learning centers it operates. Carmody said the goal is to have centers placed so that all students are within 30 to 40 miles of a center. The other centers are in Belview, Cosmos, Pipestone, Windom, and Willmar.
Twelve students are now enrolled in the Montevideo Education Learning Center, which is built to accommodate 25 to 30. Its enrollment is expected to reach 25 by the end of this year, based on contacts with districts in its service area, according to Rettmann and Mindy Halverson, the school’s administrator. They said the design of the building would allow for an expansion to double its enrollment in the future.
Interest in the services provided by the Ready Clinic is already strong as well. It’s received 18 referrals already, according to its director, Amber Bruns. That’s despite the fact that she admits one of her first challenges is just getting the word out to health care professionals in the region that this facility and its services are available.
Rettmann said it’s believed that a variety of factors are responsible for the growing need for the services offered by the center and the clinic. Years ago, some of these students would not have received an education. They would have been kept on the farm to work, or sent to work elsewhere in place of being educated, he said. Other students have medical conditions that would not have allowed them to survive beyond infancy.
He also pointed out that the awareness of mental health needs has grown. Some of these students would have been ignored and left to sit in the back of classrooms, he said.
Students attend the learning center when their home school district and their parents or guardians identify the need. The end goal for the school is to get each and every one of them back to their home districts to complete their educations, Rettmann said.
The learning center serves students in kindergarten through 12th grade, and students can remain enrolled until age 21.
The school contracts with the Montevideo School District for janitorial and food services.
The Montevideo EDA’s investment is also being rewarded by the new jobs the school brings to the community. The school is expected to have a staff of 30 when it reaches full enrollment. Already, four of the staff members moved to the Montevideo area from elsewhere, including three from out-of-state, according to Halverson.