As Perham schools make long-range plans, elementary Special Education teachers make their case for more space

Special Education teachers at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School say additional and updated classrooms are needed for the variety of Special Education services offered there, and they're asking school district leaders to keep that in mind as they work on long-term facilities plans.

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Six Heart of the Lakes Elementary School Special Education staff members presented at the Oct. 13 school board meeting. They were, clockwise from left: Jill Christensen, Carrie Grindall, Tori Paavola, Chris Pirrotta, Heidi Solberg and Madison Van Santen. The elementary school has 12 special education teachers and speech pathologists, and 39 paraprofessionals. (Submitted Photos / Perham Public Schools / Perham Focus)

Special Education teachers at Heart of the Lakes Elementary School say additional and updated classrooms are needed for the variety of Special Education services offered there, and they're asking school district leaders to keep that in mind as they work on long-term facilities plans.

Special Education teacher Heidi Solberg, for example, describes her elementary classroom as "tight," and says the lights sometimes blink and the windows let in noise, among other facility issues that can be distracting for her students.

“This is what my kids go through daily,” Solberg recently shared with Perham-Dent School Board members. “We’re in one room with all these kids and all these adults, and I have to help them regulate, but all this is going on. I have kids crying in one corner, in two and three corners, (and) we’re trying to do academic work with the kids..."

"We need to provide space for these kids," she added.

Solberg was one of six teachers from the elementary school's Special Education department to speak at the school board's Oct. 13 meeting. Special Education programs, they said, and the space needed to accommodate them, have changed as the number of students in those programs has increased over the last 10 years.


Special Education programs at the elementary school focus on students with learning disabilities, developmental cognitive disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders, mental health concerns, autism spectrum disorder, communication disorders, and those who have experienced trauma or are at an economic disadvantage.

Students in Special Education often require sensory or movement breaks and learn reading, writing and math and self-independence skills in separate classrooms. They go between general, inclusive classrooms and Special Education classrooms, spending maybe 60% of their day in a Special Education classroom. Paraprofessionals also pair with students in different rooms.

Adding classrooms and other instructional spaces at the elementary school is one of about 20 ideas district leaders are considering as they work on a long-term facilities plan with ICS Consulting. Planning began in August and will include future school and community discussions, a demography study and more to identify and address needs within the district over the next 10 years.

“We’re really here for our kids,” said Jill Christensen, a learning disability teacher. “We are here because we have students with needs that, 20 years ago when I first started teaching, I would have never dreamt I would see in an elementary student. We have students who are struggling -- emotionally, academically, mentally -- and we’re just here to let you know that they’re there and they really, really need us and anything that we can do to support them.”

The elementary school has 12 Special Education teachers and speech pathologists, and 39 paraprofessionals. School board member Mike Hamann and Heart of the Lakes Principal Liz Johnson noted the strong leadership and staff members within the school and district's Special Education department.

“The district should be really proud of the services they provide for Special Ed,” Johnson said. “It’s a hard job to do, really hard, but it’s also a fun place to be, too. There’s a lot of joy there.”


As the parent of a student in Special Education, school board member Justine Anderson thanked the team.

“The spaces that these people have to work in, on the cusp of facility planning coming up, it’s troubling, and we can do better," Anderson said. "But I appreciate all of your creativity and what you do for my (child)."

At the meeting, the board also discussed:

  • Students transitioning to in-person learning, with a focus on mental health and helping students adjust back to the classroom setting.

  • The K-12 enrollment, which is at 1,545 students.
  • Winter sports registration, now open at or by calling the activities office at 218-346-1615.

  • An update on the number of COVID-19 cases at the schools , with the elementary and middle school under 1% and the high school at 1.17% as of Oct. 14. The highest number of COVID-19 cases in a one week period has been 10 cases. The cases are updated on the school website daily.

  • Approval of the Perham Education Association master agreement through June 2023.

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ICS Consulting project development manager Ryan Hoffman, left, and project development manager Jason Splett presented a long-term facilities plan proposal to the Perham school board on Sept. 8, 2021. (Rebecca Mitchell / Perham Focus)

Rebecca Mitchell started as a Digital Content Producer for the Post Bulletin in August 2022. She specializes in enhancing online articles as well as education, feature and health reporting.
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