In one classroom, a teacher tosses a piece of Starburst candy to the outstretched hand of a student who answered a question correctly.
In another, which doesn’t even resemble a classroom, a student receives instruction on a job skill within a simulated work environment.
Traditional desks cannot be found in this school. Rather, simple long tables are used. There’s a lobby for hanging out and a nearby wall, or mural in the making, intended for pencil and mind to create something fun, beautiful or perhaps thought-provoking.
Rum River East in Cambridge is the newest addition to the education programs run by the Rum River Special Education Cooperative. Located in the former Ace Hardware store behind Cub Foods at 1730 Third Ave. NE, the program serves ninth- through 12th-grade students with disabilities from the cooperative’s member districts: Braham, Cambridge-Isanti, Isle, Milaca, Mora, Ogilvie and Princeton.
“We help students with disabilities make the transition from high school to their future adult lives,” said Howard Armstrong, program coordinator of Rum River East.
The school is designed to provide students with academic and functional programming to help in their transition from school to adulthood. Technology is held in high regard, and so are its services, including post-secondary education, vocational education and integrated and supported employment, independent and home living, and community participation.
Armstrong noted the school is currently occupied by about 26 students, but the number will fluctuate, and there are five teachers and six academic behavior managers or teaching assistants.
“We’re shooting for a maximum of 50 students,” he said of a future goal.
The Rum River East program also features a Practical Assessment Exploration System, or PAES, lab, which offers students instruction in skills to obtain jobs in the real world through a simulated work environment.
“We want relevance for all these kids; we want to make them employable,” said Pauline Bangma, director of special education for the Rum River cooperative, insisting job experience will greatly help the students. “We want business professionals to come in, mentor and talk to students on why it’s important to have skills.”
Bangma said it was about a year ago when the cooperative decided to break the high school population away from the younger students at the Rum River North program in Milaca and Rum River South in Cambridge. High school students with disabilities are connected to Rum River East through referrals and regular networking between the member districts and cooperative.
“We bring kids here with the goal of transitioning them back to their home school,” Bangma said. “Whatever a student with a disability needs, we’re here for them.”
Meantime, staff assesses where students are at in their education plans and helps them sort out their post-secondary goals.
“It helps us to focus on their relevant education plan,” Bangma noted. “The students have a plan and own it. They are driven by the hopes and dreams for the future.”
Rum River East embraces a nontraditional environment for its students, as reflected by the teachers and the building itself. And there’s a reason for it.
“The traditional school environment did not work for these kids,” Bangma said. “The staff must adapt and think on their feet. These kids …, once they see us care, they will care. Sometimes we work with students with emotional behavioral disabilities. There is no more cookie-cutter education.”