Shapes and Colors
Special Education Earns Extra Credit From the Fanciful Vision of Michael Graves

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.

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.

For years, St. Coletta took in D.C. public school students whose needs could not be served in the city's educational system. Often, though, that happened only after parents fought long and hard, as DCPS sought to keep special-education students inside the system. (The city must pay private-school expenses for students it cannot serve.)

But in 2001, city officials started to work with St. Coletta to relocate the school to the District. Eventually the city offered to lease the land on Independence Avenue to St. Coletta for a dollar a year. St. Coletta, at the urging of the D.C. Office of Special Education, agreed to apply for public charter-school status.

The students range in age from 3 to 22. (The older students hold jobs but use the school as a home base.) To qualify for the school, students must be considered severely cognitively disabled -- suffering from mental retardation or autism -- and many have secondary physical disabilities as well. Approximately 20 percent of the students are in wheelchairs, 50 percent are nonverbal and 10 percent are hearing-impaired.

Operating costs will be covered through a combination of the standard per-pupil charter-school payment and a "gap payment" from the Office of Special Education to cover the additional costs of educating the types of students served by St. Coletta.

Raimo, who has been at St. Coletta for 13 years, is the one who decided to entice Michael Graves & Associates to take on the project.

"We have always been drawn to projects for children," wrote John Diebboll, the architect in charge of the project, responding to questions via e-mail. "However, nothing in our lives had prepared us for the day that Michael Graves and I first visited the St. Coletta School in Alexandria. We experienced an immediate connection with the students and staff and realized that this would be a once-in-a-lifetime challenge and an extraordinary opportunity."

(A year later, in the early planning stages, Graves was stricken with a mysterious illness that has left him partly paralyzed and in a wheelchair -- an event Diebboll cited as giving him even greater insight into the needs of St. Coletta's population.)

Raimo was ecstatic to have the firm on board; some neighbors not so much. Activists fought the zoning approval; after losing that battle, the Graves design became a subject of fierce debate -- and, at times, fierce ridicule. "New Coletta Campus Widely Hated Here" was the headline of an article last year in the newspaper The Hill. The neighborhood e-mail list was swamped with comments, many of them angry.

Diebboll described the facility's geometric design as "relating to architectural elements in the neighborhood as well as to educational elements in the school." And the color choices were, according to Diebboll, designed to "emphasize the joyful and positive nature of the school's mission."

Overall, the design is an attempt to integrate the residential neighborhood that borders the school on one side with the much larger-scale Armory and RFK on the other -- hence, Diebboll pointed out, the decision to make "the school's classrooms along 19th Street appear to be brick houses that relate both in scale and color to the existing homes they face."

The building includes a nursing facility and physical therapy centers, as a well as a hydrotherapy room. There are studios for art and music, individual kitchens in each "house" and even a "sensory" room designed to stimulate students with lights and colors and sounds. The entire building is designed to be both handicap-accessible and safe for children who can be at risk of harming themselves. (Graves had to forgo the dramatic open staircase he hoped to have as a centerpiece near the front entrance.)

"Everything is really well thought out and designed to minimize disruption in the classroom, and to be able to deliver all the services the kids need in the classroom," said Chip Henstenburg. His 13-year-old son, Evan -- who has cerebral palsy, is blind and is described by his father as "severely disabled" -- attended St. Coletta in Alexandria for the last several years and is now enrolled at the charter school.

As for the fantastical nature of the design, Henstenburg said he was definitely struck by it and found it rather fun.

"If it came in the Michael Graves package, I'd take it," he said. "If it came more square and rectangular and less whimsical, I'd take it also."

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