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New school is up and running

The halls at Rosemount's newest school are quiet this week. There are no students in the classrooms at Intermediate School District 917's new Alliance Education Center and only a handful of teachers wandering the halls.

It's a far cry from the scene on the first few days of school last month. Things can get a little bit hectic when you've got 90 students and 50-some staff members all finding their way around a new building -- trying to figure out where everything was and how things worked.

Things have calmed down now, though, and with students out on break this week administrator Don Budach finally has some time to show off the new building's terrazzo floors, burnished block walls and other features.

It's a nice building, and a big step up from where students and staff were last year at this time.

"(It's nice) just having a building that doesn't have a leaky roof or drafts that are blowing in," Budach said. "It's very functional."

Functional is a good word for the Alliance Education Center, which serves special needs students from a collection of districts that includes Farmington, Inver Grove Heights, Hastings and Randolph. Burnished block and terrazzo floors aside there's nothing flashy about the building. It's smaller than most elementary schools but it serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade. All of the school's students have been identified as having needs beyond what their home school can handle.

Look closer and you'll notice some other differences. The classrooms are smaller. Each houses only six to eight students. Some feature familiar-looking desks and chairs but others are filled with equipment that might seem better suited to a daycare's playroom than to a classroom. In one room there is a sign on the wall with a pair of hands and instructions to press firmly. It's a technique used to calm students who get anxious or out of control.

Just outside the door of each classroom is another item that's different from most mainstream schools. Each door locks automatically and opens with a key card. That's part of the school's strategy to limit the movement of students between classrooms, an effort that serves a few purposes. It makes it easier for students who would have trouble moving through the hallways and it limits the chances a kindergartener would cross paths with one of the school's high school students.

"We want to make sure it's easy for staff to get around but for students, we want to limit their movement," Budach said. "A lot of transitions are difficult for our students."

The Alliance Education Center has two main programs. Students with Unique Needs, or SUN, serves students with sensory, social/emotional and behavioral needs. The Intra-Dakota Education Alternative program helps students with serious emotional or behavioral disabilities. The school employs 14 teachers as well as social workers, occupational and physical therapists and speech language therapists.

Some of the students are eventually sent back to their mainstream school on a full- or part-time basis.

Until last year all of the Alliance Education Center's programs were housed at an aging building in South St. Paul. Discussion of the new building had been going on for about eight years, but talk got serious about a year and a half ago, Budach said. The school took about a year to build once construction got under way.

Daniel Sullivan, the district's special education director for 25 years, was one of the main forces behind getting the Alliance Education Center built but he never got to see the finished building. He died last Memorial Day weekend. A conference room at the new school has been named in his honor and there is a plaque on the wall to recognize his efforts.

So far, Budach said, the new school is working well. It's centrally located in Dakota County, which makes serving students from the district's enrollment area more convenient. And, as Budach pointed out, the roof doesn't leak.

"We just feel really fortunate," he said. "We're pretty excited about it."