New Hope Middle to provide sensory room thanks to grant

Cami Baldivid/Whitfield County Schools

Teacher Cami Baldivid sits in New Hope Middle School's former computer lab, which was cleared out to make space for the room's transformation into a sensory room. 

New Hope Middle School students with autism and intellectual disabilities will benefit from a new sensory room following a summer renovation courtesy of a School Crashers grant from the Georgia United Credit Union Foundation.

"Our teachers are excited, already planning times of day (to use this room) with students, and identifying students who it will be great for," Belinda Sloan, New Hope's principal, explained earlier this summer. "We're thrilled, (because) we don't (currently) have anything quite as sophisticated as this room, and I think our parents are going to be excited" about this opportunity for their children.

The room will be "a wonderful thing to offer to" families, said teacher Cami Baldivid, who wrote the grant application. "We want to be the greatest school ever and meet the needs of all children."

The remodeled classroom will serve as a sensory refuge for students with autism and a self-contained learning unit for special education students, according to Kris Horsley, communications specialist for Whitfield County Schools. New Hope is working with Georgia United this summer to complete the project.

It'll be "a collaborative effort" between New Hope and Whitfield County Schools employees, as well as those from Georgia United, and Mohawk Industries is donating flooring for the room, Sloan said. Certain sections of the room may appeal to different needs, from auditory to lighting to physical assets, that will allow students to "get some of those needs out in a productive way."

Bubble walls, a platform swing for children who use wheelchairs and even a punching bag are under consideration for the room, Baldivid said. "We want to think about the future," as the room is for not only current New Hope students, but those who will attend in years to come.

New Hope will also reach out to the Anna Shaw Children's Institute, which boasts similar rooms, Sloan said. "We want to do this the best way."

"We're planning a thorough training for everyone so this room is utilized correctly," Baldivid said. "We want to make it as personal as possible for our (students)."

"All children are special, and we want to help them succeed so everyone can shine," she added. "They have unique talents and needs, but those differences should bring us closer together."

Sloan was tasked with identifying a room for this new space, and she selected what was a computer lab.

Because the school and system is transitioning more to personal devices like Chromebooks, computer labs with bulky desktops are becoming anachronisms, and these computers are "really, really old," Sloan said. "We were going to dismantle the lab, anyway, because it would have cost too much to renovate."

The room is also centrally located for ease of access, but it's not in any grade-level hallways, which will afford privacy for students, she said. It doesn't have outside windows, which is a positive, because that will allow the school to control lighting.

School Crashers is Georgia United's largest community service program, offering schools across the state an opportunity to apply for facility makeovers, and this is the initiative's seventh year, according to the Georgia United Credit Union Foundation. The School Crashers nomination period opened in March, and schools were asked to include a photograph along with a 250-word essay explaining why their school should receive a makeover.

More than 200 nominations were received, but New Hope "is a unique middle school in Whitfield County that has two extraordinary programs," a self-contained class for students with intellectual disabilities and a self-contained/resource classroom for students with autism, according to the Georgia United Credit Union Foundation. "Both programs serve many students with exceptionalities that range from autism, intellectual disorders, physical impairments, visual impairments and oppositional defiant disorders."

Between 20 and 30 students with autism and intellectual disabilities will use this room regularly, Sloan said. "They have very specific needs, and we try to service what their needs are, because we want them to be super successful."

At New Hope, some students with autism are involved in conventional classrooms, Baldivid said. At times, they can become "overwhelmed" by various stimuli, so the sensory room will be a refuge.

In the past six years, School Crashers "has provided 43 makeovers with improvements valued over" $1.3 million, Debbie Smith, CEO and president of Georgia United Credit Union, stated in a press release. "We look forward to our seventh year of serving our communities and strengthening our school systems by providing inspiring learning spaces for students to experience when they return to school this fall.”

Baldivid was aware of School Crashers, and Sloan had sent a reminder to staff about grant opportunities, including this one, Baldivid said. She also had recently watched a video about a sensory room as part of her professional development, so "I thought 'Wouldn't it be great if we had a sensory room for our children?'"

Baldivid, who has spent more than two decades of her career in special education but has also taught in traditional classrooms, learned on May 4 that New Hope had been awarded the $20,000 grant, she said.

"I was so, so excited," she said.

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