Monday, August 25, 2014

My Tour of Merrimac Heights Academy

Sunday I had the pleasure of touring a brand new school in Merrimac, MA called Merrimac Heights Academy. This is not your average school...Below is a quick description regarding their philosophy and admissions policy, below that is my review and personal opinion.


"Merrimac Heights Academy believes and operates with the philosophy that most young students with learning and other developmental disabilities can achieve maximum independence and as a result become productive members of society."

"At Merrimac Heights Academy, we're extending education and life skills beyond the traditional classroom to our unique partial residency program. Our academy was created for students 12-22 yrs of age with broad spectrum intelligence, cognitive and developmental disabilities with the support of highly education, experienced and dedicated staff."

"The curriculum is comprehensive and designed to teach skills that allow each student to increase his or her knowledge and independence and to be successful in real life situations at home, school, work and in the community. Individual and small group instruction using research based programs and language based methodologies."  

  • Students who range in age from 12-22 years
  • Students who demonstrate complex language, learning, social and cognitive challenges
  • Students who do not demonstrate significant behavioral, psychiatric or emotional problems
  • Students who are diagnosed with learning, intellectual, cognitive or developmental disabilities
  • Students who demonstrate the ability to progress academically
  • Students whose learning styles have prevented them from achieving social and academic success in traditional educational settings
  • Students who have experienced social isolation or difficulty with peer relationships 

They offer academics, with students grouped according to skill level and learning pace with much emphasis on individual needs. The classroom groups are small and comfortable, with all needs being met. There are tutoring and therapy options, as well as summer programs. 

Not only is there a seemingly wonderful academic piece to this school.....there is so much more. 

My Review of Merrimac Heights School
The first thing I noticed about this school was the amount of space.  Because school has not started yet, I cannot speak for the academic portion of the program I can only tell you what I have learned from speaking with staff, but I can tell you what I observed during my tour. 

Upon arrival, I pulled up in front of 2 large red buildings. with a driveway/breezeway up between the two that led to a 3rd building. Also on the property are several smaller buildings. This property is 11 acres of wooded land, tons of lawn, an outdoor basketball court and a baseball diamond. I later found that one of the smaller out buildings is a sugar shack to make use of the Maple trees on the property! 

The first building I entered was the main academic building. 

Inside this building, there are administrative offices, a reception area, the main academic classrooms, smaller rooms for counseling if needed, quiet time, MCAS testing etc. There were also several common areas for lounging, reading a book, or eating a meal. There is a kitchen and kids are encouraged to help prepare meals if they are able, with staff supervision of course. 

Dining area
Academic building kitchen

Academic building sitting area
Library area where kids can relax and read

Classrooms themselves are set up with either individual desks for kids who prefer their personal space, or tables for group learning. I took a couple photos but they were a bit blurry, so I have not included them. 

This academic building also has something pretty cool that is currently a work in progress. A student run cafe! A design team is currently drawing up plans for a brand new industrial kitchen that students will learn culinary skills, and a cafe where they can learn food service skills, etiquette while serving the public and how to handle money/make change. 

Seating for the 'Kid Cafe'
Outdoor seating for the 'Kid Cafe'

If you notice here, there is also a garden. Kids will help choose what they would like to grow, help plant seeds, care for plants, and serve them in the cafe! I wouldn't be surprised to see pancakes with maple syrup they've made in the sugar shack on the menu! 
View from an upstairs classroom looking down to the garden

Gazebo outside the garden

After leaving the academic building, we went next door to where the fun stuff is. Upon entering I stepped into a huge gymnasium, fully equipped with basketball nets and good lighting. 

Through the door to my left were 2 huge automotive bays with cathedral ceilings. Bays are separated by a dividing wall, and each bay has stairs that go up to observation lofts, which will be used for science labs. 

Below the gymnasium is a woodworking area, a fitness room and a room that will become a recording studio for students who enjoy music, singing, or playing an instrument. 

On the upper level of this building there is an art area, with 2 rooms of bright space for exploring a creative side. The door from the art room leads to a deck that could honestly be considered an extension of the art room. It's high off the ground and the view from the deck is beautiful. Right next door to the school is a Christmas Tree farm and the trees are in full view of this deck. 

If you turn and look toward the back yard when on this deck, you will be looking at the space that will hopefully one day (soon?) be the home of many animals, to be cared for by students. Maybe organic eggs will be on that cafe menu? 

Also in this building are the tech areas...

And a student run thrift shop! Students will learn how to care for a store setting, count money, give change, and maybe even some price bartering for that thrifty haggler who likes a bargain. Watch this store for student made crafts, especially around the holidays. 

The last building in my tour was a house that will be where residential students will sleep. This part of the school is not yet ready for kids to move in, so you will need to check with school administration if you are interested in that piece. I did take pix of what exists currently, but you have to use your imagination. 

Upon entering the student house, I walked into what will be their living room/sitting area, and I was told there are plans for a big flat screen tv in this room. What stood out to me was the homeyness of this room, and the amount of windows. 

Off of the living room were stairs to go up to bedrooms (2nd photo is view standing on the stairs) but directly next to this room is a kitchen area, with adjoining dining area and laundry area, where kids will be taught and encouraged to do their own laundry.

Also on this floor is a bedroom that will be a sleeping staff bedroom for the overnight staff (there will also be awake overnight staff- I will get to that.) There will always be an extra staff member sleeping in the downstairs bedroom as an extra safety precaution. Overnight staff will also consist of CNA's and a nurse will be on call in the event of a medical emergency. 

On to upstairs. 

On the second floor of the student house are many bedrooms. I didn't happen to count them, but I did take a few pix to show the different set ups. These set ups are temporary, and the rugs are going to be removed. 

Bedrooms on one end of the house will be for male students, the other end female students. There is a large common area at the top of the stairs separating males from females. This area will have the awake overnight staff, and no student would be able to get down the stairs, or venture into an area they aren't supposed to be in at night without staffs permission. 

Directly behind the awake staff area is a room that is going to have video games and other things kids like. Obviously these would be parent approved games. When asked about the concept of having video games in a school, the answer I got was simple - "This should feel like their home while they're here." There is also a second door to outside in the game room. 

The basement of this house will be fixed up and house a homework area, where kids can retreat to if needed so they can quietly do homework. 

So, that was my tour of the buildings and plans for each area. As I was getting ready to leave we discussed a whole other part that I am DEFINITELY going to utilize:

The after school programs <--clickable link!

Relationship Readiness Class
Ages 16+
Weds 5pm-6pm

Are you helping your adolescent struggle with raging hormones? This class will give your child tools to forge healthy relationships and navigate the dating scene in socially acceptable ways. There will be a male and a female counselor running this course. 

Social Skills Group
Ages 12+
Tues 5pm-6:15 

Does your child struggle in social situations? This group is for students who wish to enhance their interpersonal sills with both peers and adults. 

Driver's Ed!!!!!!!!
Cost and dates to be decided, ages 15.5+

This class will be co-taught by a driving instructor and a special ed teacher. 

So, that was my tour. This school is brand new, and some parts are a work in progress. Spots will fill quickly, and I can see this campus bustling with busy kids, some off to tend the garden, others going over to do an oil change, while another group attends math class. There is so much to do at this place. 

Renovations are still planned for some updates, and I really hope they are able to get the animals they'd like to. I think that part would be fantastic, especially for kids who maybe live in an area that have no exposure to this type of environment. 

If you have any questions please direct them to their website, as I have no affiliation with this school, I was simply asked to tour and I am relaying my findings to you all. If any of you are interested and are able to come for a tour please let me know and maybe Logan and I can come take the tour with you! 

T 978-223-5258

For more info