WADENA-Machines paused and debris settled at the south end of Wadena's Industrial Park for a half-hour Monday, July 16, as educators, administrators, contractors and community members gathered for the groundbreaking ceremony of the Freshwater Education District's Level IV special education facility.

The 23,000-square-foot facility, estimated to open summer 2019, will serve about 50 students from 13 central Minnesota school districts and serve as Freshwater's central office.

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Jena Osberg, who has worked with Freshwater's Level IV program since 2007 and has been the program's facilitator for the last two years, stated in a news release a customized learning environment will have a significant impact.

"There's a number of things that have to happen for students to be successful in a school setting," Osberg stated in the release. "One is you have to have a quality staff. You have to have people who are willing to go above and beyond - Freshwater has that. You also have to have good programs and curriculum that can change and adapt to students' needs. We've got that, too. But a third thing is the learning environment that students come to every day. I am thrilled to know that we're going to see our students' success based on the fact that this building was created just for them."

Federal policy requires schools to provide access to Level IV programming in a separate school setting for students who struggle to succeed in the general education setting due to significant behavioral or mental health needs. Level IV provides structured behavioral, academic and mental health programming for students who spend the majority of the school day outside the regular classroom, have an individualized education plan and often require intensive special education services.

Freshwater administrators and staff are looking forward to a building that fits the needs of its student population, the release stated. Everything-from the layout, lighting and color scheme-was designed with intention.

Osberg said all the classrooms will be connected, offering better flow for easier transitions. Lockers will be located in the classrooms for enhanced safety and ease of supervision. The facility will also feature clerestory windows-horizontal windows above head height that offer natural lighting without the temptation of distractions from outside.

"We'll also have extra, smaller areas for kids to work," Osberg stated. "Sometimes we have a student who gets really overwhelmed with the noise or just needs to step away. We'll have built-in areas to take a student so they can work. We've worked with our building designers on sensory-based details-colors that are calming and lights that can be dimmed. We're even building in sensory spaces and individual spaces within the classrooms so I can be teaching my class and guide a student to a special workspace. They're still with us and not totally separated."

This long-desired space started to become reality in October 2016 when area special education leaders met with Sourcewell (formerly National Joint Powers Alliance) staff.

"We had a meeting about how we could work together in Region Five to serve our special education students more intentionally," said Paul Drange, Sourcewell director of regional programs, in the release. "One item that came out of that meeting was this-what was needed for Level IV facilities in our region. We allowed ourselves to dream a bit that day, and the discussions from that meeting set the wheels in motion that brought us here to today's groundbreaking."

Sourcewell committed $5 million to the building project as part of its strategic reinvestment in Region Five, according to the release.

Freshwater's full-voting membership includes Menahga, Sebeka, Henning, Wadena-Deer Creek, Verndale, Staples-Motley, Bertha-Hewitt, Browerville and Long Prairie-Grey Eagle, plus Frazee, New York Mills, Perham-Dent and Pillager, which are considered associate members.

Sourcewell also committed $5 million to the Mid-State Education District in Little Falls for its Level IV special education facility. That project will break ground in August and is set to be complete September 2019. Mid-State serves Onamia, Pierz, Royalton, Swanville, Upsala and Isle school districts.