Shapes and Colors

"It's a rush -- there's nothing like it," CEO Sharon Raimo says of the colors and shapes at the new St. Coletta charter school for mentally disabled children. (Photos By Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Across the street from the D.C. Armory, down the road from RFK Stadium and sharing a neighborhood with blocks and blocks of traditional brick rowhouses, the new occupant at Independence Avenue and 19th Street SE invariably draws curious stares.

Its face combines several geometric shapes -- four cubes turned to various angles, and a cylinder -- and a full palette of color, ranging from Carolina blue to deep burnished orange to sea-foam green. One side is brick-red and creamy vanilla. Windows come in rectangles, squares, circles. The impression is almost whimsical, like a child's elaborate drawing come to life. The building's pedigree, however, is far more impressive than that. The design firm is headed by Michael Graves, the architect famed for his postmodernist style and powerful use of color (and that popular line of housewares at Target).

Still, it was the children shaking off the rain and streaming through the doors yesterday morning who provided the inspiration for the place. It was the first day of classes at St. Coletta Special Education Public Charter School, a brand-new facility that will serve close to 260 of the most severely mentally disabled children (and some adults) in the area.

"Hampton! We're so happy you're back!" said a smiling teacher, leaning over a young boy in a wheelchair.

"Look, Dad's videotaping!" pointed out another staff member, as a little boy with a Thomas the Tank Engine backpack proudly walked to his new classroom, his tiny hand clutching that of an escort. A little girl with braids and a pink Disney Princess backpack preened as she greeted her teacher. A severely autistic boy threw himself on the floor in a tantrum -- new places being scary and all -- but was quickly calmed and led off to see his new school.

While the exterior of St. Coletta has been generating buzz in the city -- particularly in its Capitol Hill neighborhood -- for some time now, it's the world inside that has truly stunned the families of its students, many who have had nothing but negative experiences involving the D.C. public school system.

"Truthfully, I just wanted to cry," said Doreen Hodges, whose 6-year-old son, Titus, suffers from Down syndrome. "It's so beautiful and you could just feel the love in the building. . . . You never thought anything like that was ever going to be available to kids like this in D.C."

At over 99,000 square feet -- and costing $32 million, which came from congressional appropriations, a bond secured by Bank of America, and a capital fundraising campaign -- St. Coletta is nothing like any other public school in the city. The gymnasium looks like a field house at a Division I college. The cafeteria kitchen would be suitable for an upscale restaurant. The central atrium is cavernous, with a soaring, arched ceiling and multiple skylights. Dubbed the "village green," the open space is large enough to fit at least a half-dozen standard-size classrooms. Off the atrium are five individual "houses," each one home to a different age range of students.

The Michael Graves &  Associates plan for the St. Coletta school  --  primarily serving mentally disabled children  --  drew criticism from some residents in the school's Capitol Hill neighborhood.
The Michael Graves & Associates plan for the St. Coletta school -- primarily serving mentally disabled children -- drew criticism from some residents in the school's Capitol Hill neighborhood.(Marvin Joseph - The Washington Post)
And everywhere, that riot of color: more Carolina blue and creamy yellow, pinks in all hues, soft greens, vivid oranges.

"It's a rush -- there's nothing like it," says Sharon Raimo, the chief executive officer of St. Coletta of Greater Washington and the impetus behind the project (not to mention the person who personally picked out the interior paint colors, insisted that all furniture and lockers be white -- the better to show germ-laden dirt -- and chose the polka-dot furniture in the administrative waiting area).

"I didn't think this partnership with D.C. would ever happen," she said, "but in the end it's such a win-win."

Founded in 1959, St. Coletta of Greater Washington has long served the mentally disabled in the region, providing both a school for children and an adult day program. Nonprofit and nonsectarian, St. Coletta also has facilities in Alexandria, where the school operated privately until this year and where the adult program continues.

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