Pioneer Education Center's garden for special needs kids adds dimension to summer school
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For students at the Pioneer Education Center, summer is a time for continued learning.
Part of the Pittsburgh Public Schools, the school in Brookline serves students ages 5 to 21 with severe physical and mental disabilities who need an extended year because they would lose too much ground over a long summer break.
This summer, a new sensory garden -- designed to be accessible and engaging to people with special needs by appealing to their senses of smell, sight and touch -- will add a new dimension to the program.
The garden includes wheelchair-accessible swing sets, fragrant and touchable plants, a bubbling rock fountain along with overhangs that provide shade for students who cannot be exposed to sunlight. There are also separate areas for play and quiet reflection.
More features will be installed throughout the summer, including raised planters, play panels, tunnels covered by vines, outdoor musical instruments and additional seating and picnic tables.
School Principal Sylbia Kunst said the garden is a place "where our students can be engaged in a learning experience that takes the classroom outside."
The garden dedication on Tuesday was a continuation of Pioneer's 50th anniversary celebration, which began May 17 with a rededication party and dance.
In January, after three years of exploring numerous options for the land behind the school, Pioneer was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Edith L. Trees Charitable Trust to build the garden.
The garden was designed by Kara Roggenkamp of MTR Landscape Architects, which was brought into the project by the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, a nonprofit that has built gardens at other Pittsburgh Public Schools.
Although Wednesday was the last day of school, Pioneer students will return July 13 for the extended school year.
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, extended school year is guaranteed to public school students who will likely regress -- or lose critical skills -- over the summer vacation or who will fail to recoup these skills in a reasonable time.
Dr. Kunst said all students at Pioneer automatically qualify for the summer session, which runs until Aug. 6. One other city school, Conroy Education Center, a special education school in Manchester, also has an extended school year.
During the summer, Dr. Kunst said, the school day is one hour shorter and the primary focus is on therapy -- physical, occupational and language. Less focus is placed on cognitive skills. Students also spend more time outside, making the sensory garden an essential tool in their summer program.
Joann Koslow, a teacher at Pioneer, said the garden will fit well with the summer curriculum.
"During the summer we'll get a book and just sit outside and read it, or we'll walk around the track. Now there is so much more to do," she said.
Students are looking forward to using the garden, as well. Pioneer student Donavin Grusdewski, 15, of Carrick, said, "It's a wonderful thing to do for us."
First Published June 17, 2010 12:00 am