Last year, the 80-year-old Dr. J.P. Lord School in Omaha opened a new building tailored to the needs of students with multiple disabilities. The facility is part of the Omaha Public School system, free to students who need it, and its innovations are drawing national attention.
Arayshel Idrees is one of the sixty-five medically fragile students with multiple disabilities at J.P. Lord’s new facility. Her mother Carla Idrees says that after the age of two, Arayshel began to experience a large increase in seizures.describes what life was like for their family before the start of the school year.
“And when I say ‘large increase,’" Carla says, “she was having somewhere between sixty to eighty seizures a day. So when we would take her out places, often that’s all family would see. Either Arayshel having a seizure and us needing to suction her, or they would see her sleeping. And that was it. Not interaction, not even her eyes open, nothing.”
However, things have changed for both Arayshel and for the Dr. J.P. Lord School this academic year. Principal Laura MacHolmes says things came together thanks to a $3.4 million bond issue and a buy-out from the University of Nebraska Medical Center. MacHolmes says this left the school with $10 million to spend.
The new building supports what’s called a “sensory curriculum,” a course of study and an environment that helps children like Arayshel interact with the world without becoming dangerously overstimulated. Considering the effect it’s had on Arayshel, Carla Idrees calls it “a miracle in and of itself.”
J.P. Lord adaptive art teacher Joe Gregory offers an example of this curriculum: a project about Vincent Van Gogh’s 1888 painting Sunflowers. “We would bring in sunflowers, we would feel the shape, we might do torn paper. There’s a lot of textures and lot of different experiences, so we’re reaching them one way or another.”
The new building means Gregory and the rest of the faculty now have a state-of-the-art space designed to do just that, giving students freedom of movement and of experience. This is accomplished with ceiling-mounted outlets for breathing machines and feeding pumps as well as extra wide hallways for wheelchairs.
To guide his designs, head architect Bob Mabrey of BCDM Architects observed the daily life of J.P. Lord students and teachers. Mabrey looked for similar facilities in the U.S. and, finding none, drew on like institutions in England and Israel to strike a balance between medicine and education.
One example of this balance is a therapy pools made for wheelchairs. Mabrey says the bottom is a treadmill, allowing students the ability to stand up for brief periods and even experience walking forward.
Another important sensory element is smell. Principal Laura MacHolmes says ovens are in every classroom with the idea being to create rich aromatic experiences for their students, such as baking chocolate chip cookies. MacHolmes says the cookies could be tasted, if possible, or seen, or even heard. “Have you ever thought,” MacHolmes observes, “about crunching a cookie and seeing what it sounds like?”
In fact, MacHolmes says the school has a “sensory room” that provides personalized experiences for each student. Everything in it can be changed, from the lights bathing the room to the music playing in it.
Munroe Meyer Institute Director of Occupational Therapy Janice Flagle calls this “modulation.” “We all have different thresholds, personal thresholds,” she notes, “for all of that sensory stimulation.” Flagle says that because neurological connections are so complex, the everyday experiences of the students at J.P. Lord School could, in her words, “can really tip them off in a negative direction.”
J.P. Lord music therapist Erin Singh, takes that literally. Guitar in hand, she helps students develop a critical skill: voicing their opinions. And considering most of her students are non-verbal, it isn’t your typical voice.
Working with each student in turn, SinghErin sings one line of a song, then pauses while the student chooses a response by pointing or blinking - then, Erin records that choice – then another pause – and by pushing a big red button, they can make her recorded voice play back, in essence singing along.
Singh adds that activities like this teach a vital lesson: that their students can keep agency in their own lives even without typical verbal capabilities.
But verbal or not, Carla and Haroon Idrees say they’ve seen a change in Arayshel. Carla describes it with a phrase commonly heard from J.P. Lord parents and teachers. “We talk about Arayshel being awake,” Carla says. “That means she’s doing things. She’s doing things that people, for years, have told us she would never be able to do.”
Recently, Carla asked if Arayshel could blow her a kiss. Carla says she perked up when she noticed her daughter’s right hand was moving. Carla says, “I asked her again, ‘Arayshel, can you blow momma kisses? And the next thing you know she started to bring her right arm up. She didn’t make it all the way to her mouth but she started to bring it up. Of course I celebrated and helped her with her arm to blow me a kiss and then she did that four times."
Adaptive art teacher Joe Gregory says it’s important for the community to know that the school is there, and that they want to be part of that larger community.
That’s a sentiment common among not only J.P. Lord teachers, but parents as well. Carla Idrees says most special needs families are very open and want to spread awareness of the challenges they face. “But,” she adds, “we’re just like any other family too, so don’t be afraid because we want to share our family with yours.”
Architect Bob Mabrey says that other American special needs schools are already taking JP Lord up on that offer; coming to visit the school, possibly using it as a model for their new constructions and helping their students build more engaged lives.