Pankalo provides specialized learning opportunities for disabled students

Graphic by Sarah Junko
Information Graphic by Sarah Junko

District 916 authorized the purchase of property in Lake Elmo to move forward in their three step facilities plan. Step one was building Karner Blue, a special education school in Blaine. Step two is building Pankalo, another special education facility, but this one will be in Lake Elmo. The purchase was initially authorized in November 2013. Since then, district 916, partner districts and the city of Lake Elmo have been working together to finalize the building and financial plans for Pankalo.

District 916 is an intermediate district, which means that it works with the surrounding 12 districts and provides services for students in all of the partner districts. Pankalo will provide learning opportunities for special needs students that have been referred by their home districts. It will be a level IV school for students with Emotional Behavioral Disorders, Autism and Developmental Cognitive Delays that have not been successful in their home schools.

Building Information

Pankalo will be roughly 72,000 square feet and built in Lake Elmo’s Eagle Point Business Park. It will be a public school for up to 125 kindergarten through eighth grade students. The building will have a neighborhood-like model. There will be four neighborhoods that cater to students with similar needs and each will have five classrooms.

The school will greatly benefit the Lake Elmo community. “As all schools go, it is in the best interest of the city to provide for the education of its children,” Interim City Administrator Clark Schroeder said.

The projected costs of construction for the school is $21 million. The costs will be paid for with help from surrounding districts. The residents of Stillwater Area School District are helping by paying a portion of their property tax to the cost of the school.

Alicia Lebens wrote in the Stillwater Gazette, “On Aug. 13, Stillwater Area Finance Director Kristen Hoheisel presented the expected tax impact for the average residential market value home. For a home valued at $200,000, the current tax for 2015 paid in 2016 is $4.99 (this only includes the portion of tax allocated for District 916). For the 2016 tax paid in 2017, taxes are expected to increase to $10.35, and rise to $12.44 in 2017 paid in 2018.”

Student benefits

As of August 2015, district 916 has finalized the general focus and atmosphere for the school, “The atmosphere will be welcoming, friendly, and student-centered,” future Pankalo principal Amy Johncox said. Pankalo will also be focusing on the arts as a way for students to express themselves outside of academic requirements.

Previously if you were referred to one of our programs you went to school in a wing attached to a different school in one of our members’ district. This was not very welcoming and it was difficult to develop an identity,” district 916’s director of special education Daniel Naidicz said. The new school is hoping to make the transition to a new program as positive and friendly as possible. District 916 superintendent Connie Hayes said, “We feel the programming, still in development, will enhance healing and well-being while at the same time improving academic outcomes.”

Separate special education schools are beneficial to students in a plethora of ways. Certain things that are necessary in both regular and special education schools, such as playgrounds, hallways, gymnasiums and even things a simple as the walls and lights, are updated to accommodate the disabled students needs.

For example, the hallways are curved rather than long and straight. Some students elope to deal with their anxiety, so limiting the sight lines to an exterior exit door limits the desire to run away,” Hayes said. The curved walls also help to minimize distractions and possible triggers for other students.

Pankalo will also have breakout rooms, special rooms to help students who become anxious or aggressive to calm down. The walls are extended all the way to the roof, instead of just above the ceiling, to minimize noise carrying from room to room. The walls are also made to be extra durable for when distraught students attempt to damage the walls.

The atmosphere will be welcoming, friendly, and student-centered”

— Amy Johncox

Special education schools are able to provide students with more individualized education plans that aim to have students excel in school, “Students come to us and sometimes do better in school than they ever have before,” Johncox said.


The main goals of Pankalo are to provide a friendly, safe and educational environment.

In many scenarios, students with certain disabilities are prone to act out in self-injurious ways or in ways that are dangerous to others. “The design of the building allows a number of things to help improve safety for students and staff,” Hayes said.

When a student goes to a school like Pankalo, while they are getting countless benefits from their new environment and programs, they miss out on being with general education peers. Pankalo helps to get students ready to move back into the less restrictive environment that is their home school. “We strive to have students return to their home school district as soon as possible and many do, especially students in our elementary grades,” Naidicz said.

Last year approximately 25 percent of the elementary aged students were able to return to their own school.  The 916 staff help the student and family transition back to the home schools so that there is the best chance for success,” Hayes said.