FARIBAULT, Minn. — For most of its history, the state-run school serving Minnesota children who are deaf or hard of hearing operated on what might be described as an "open campus," one that allowed for free movement between buildings.
But as the U.S. approach to school security changed in recent years, so too did that of the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf in Faribault. Today its facilities are accessed primarily by keycard, for example.
Now with a new $4 million construction project in the works, the school is looking to further maximize the safety of those who learn and work at it — and take on its most significant facilities upgrade since 2018.
"Our highest priority is the safety of our students and staff," Minnesota State Academies Superintendent Terry Wilding said through a sign language interpreter on a recent video call.
Central to the proposed security upgrades is a structure that academy officials refer to as a "security corridor" that, once complete, will act as the single point of entry for the three main buildings in which the school's 160 students are educated. Limiting the number of ways that a visitor can access a school building is an increasingly common safety practice in the U.S.
But at the State Academy for the Deaf, Wilding said, there is currently no "one-stop shop" where school visitors have to check in or can ask for directions.
"They don’t need to even access a visitor badge at this point," he said.
That will no longer be the case beginning in fall 2022, should construction conclude on schedule. A design team for the project is being sought as of this month, with construction planned to begin in January of next year.
Wilding said the academy is seeking additional funding from the Legislature to expand its mass communication systems. Standing in for intercoms, television screens that display up-to-date information are already in use on the campus, he said, but there is a need for more of them.
Construction funds were appropriated by the Minnesota Legislature in its most recent infrastructure bill for the project, which will include life-extending work on Quinn Hall, where preschool and elementary school students are taught, and Smith Hall, the high school. An upgraded science lab and more accessible bathrooms are planned to figure into their designs.
On a campus with eight buildings that are more than 90 years old, historical preservation can sometimes become a point of consideration when a building comes up for remodeling work.
"But at the same time we have to make sure that they meet our students’ needs. The buildings designed in 1900 were not ADA-compliant," Wilding said, referring to the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act, "or energy efficient."
Care will be taken not to clash with the architectural style of Noyes Hall, the academic building that houses the school's auditorium, in building a wheelchair-accessible ramp. Designed by famed Minnesota architect Clarence H. Johnston Sr., the building was completed between 1902 and 1910 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Taken together, the security and service life extension goals laid out in the project make it the most significant one to be taken on by the academy since the construction of a new residence hall was completed in 2018, the first new building on the campus in 50 years.
In trying to accomplish them all in one project, Wilding said the school will strive to disrupt student activities as little as possible (class is still being taught in person at the school amid the coronavirus pandemic) and hopefully prevent the need for future renovations from arising until later.
Even now, though, Wilding said, talks are underway about what smaller-scale construction projects to prioritize next. A new cafeteria and gym are being looked at, he said, as are new dormitories for the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind campus, also in Faribault.