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Whittier Elementary School in West Valley City has all the usual fixtures, from desks to whiteboards to a playground, but it also has the unexpected — a climbing wall, a disco ball and a zipline.

Its wing for special needs students includes a sensory room with multi-colored lights, a boom box with calming music, a vibrating mat and soft mats for jumping or resting. The nurse's office has three full-time nurses and a host of medical equipment. The physical therapy room is typically used by about 20 students a day, but it serves up to 60 on busy days.

The abundant natural lighting, adjustable electric lighting, rubberized floors and split doors are designed to keep students with special needs safe and comfortable.

The Granite School District calls it a "special-needs wrap-around service hub," and it's set to open another one for the 2013-2014 school year at Granger High school's new building. The district's main special-needs school, Hartvigsen, also will move into a new building next year, located near Taylorsville High School to foster relationships.

The features of the new facilities are important — but interaction between special needs students and non-disabled peers remains key, said Noelle Converse, special education director for Granite School District.

"Both educational experiences become richer," she said. "They learn from each other's differences and they're able to complement each other in ways that you wouldn't foresee."

Sensory breaks • In Whittier's physical therapy room, physical therapy assistant Vicky Bicker slides horizontally into a "taco swing" and shows how students keep their arms and head up to train their core and help with posture.

"And when they're all done they get to fly," Bicker said, using the ground to push herself back and forth, extending her arms out as if she was taking flight.

Multiple "taco swings" can hang from the ceiling at once. When students use the zipline stretched across the room, assistants set up a crash pad for them to land on.

Having access to sensory and physical therapy equipment can make all the difference when educating a special-needs child, Converse said. Of the school's 745 students, 164, or 22 percent, are students with disabilities. The new wing for them opened last year.

Kids with sensory integration problems — a common challenge for autistic students — can experience anything from "seeing red" to feeling like their skin is burning to feeling like they're lifting off the ground.

Sensory breaks ease the students' bodies and help their minds focus. Teachers capitalize on that by assigning academic tasks right after breaks.

"It's unbelievable the amount of focus you can get if you spend just a little bit of a break, a sensory break, where you get varied kinds of stimulation like this," Converse said. "You're able to get enough calming and attention out of them to start to really see some engagement."

Without the breaks, students may resort to "tantrums...checking out...skimming," Converse said. "You see a lot of self-stimulatory behavior, anything from shaking to self injurious behavior."

Student connections • Misti Smith has three autistic children who attend Whittier; two are non-verbal. She appreciates the hub's services and the school's collaborative approach.

When her oldest son, Braxton, now 10, showed aggression toward another student, an administrator cleared out an office so he could have a private space to work, she said. Then staff carefully integrated him back into the classroom, using therapy techniques in the weight room to keep him calm.

She had worried that the teachers "have got to hate my kid cause he's so bad," she said. "[But instead] they are crying with me. They just want to help."

She also appreciates how her children are integrated with the school's general population. Her nine-year-old, Trey, goes to P.E. class with "typical" kids.

For both her son and the other children, "that's so great, intermingling them as much as they can," Smith said.

Principal Lynette Golze recalled a special-needs kindergartner who was having a hard time in the hall one day when twenty of his peers from another class walked by. They all said his name and gave him high fives, she said.

That one moment made all the difference.

"That kid stood up with a smile on his face," Golze said, "walked back in his classroom and had a great day." —

Supporting special needs

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