Mahinawa Specialist School: A vision becomes reality for special needs students

Many unique projects are driven by equally unique individuals behind the scenes, and the development of a new specialist base school for secondary age students in Porirua is an example of precisely that.

Mahinawa Specialist School principal, Fay Stanton, has spent years lobbying the Ministry of Education, and it finally paid off. With a long history teaching special needs pupils, Stanton is passionate about assisting those in need, and first became interested growing up in the United Kingdom, seeing her mother teach students such as she herself is in charge of now.

“I must have written a million letters,” Stanton says with a laugh, of the two decades she petitioned the Ministry, although beneath the jesting it is clear she is serious. Incredibly, it wasn’t until the former Kapi-Mana school recorded an infestation of maggots that the new school was finally signed off by the Ministry of Education. The old school was maggot infested for a reason, with dead rats discovered in the floor and walls of a classroom.

Searching for a new site presented its own set of challenges, however when the top field at Mana College was eventually put forward as an option, it seemed the ideal solution. The land was already owned by the Ministry of Education, and they were keen to give it the green light. Unfortunately, that particular parcel of land had flooding issues, so huge geo-technical investigations took place. Metal poles were used to secure the area, and whilst it did hold up the expected time frame of the development, the result was worth it.

Engaging the services of a specialist team was key to the school’s success, and Stanton is quick to sing the praises of those companies involved. “I cannot speak highly enough of Arrow International, OPUS International Consultants, Mainzeal and Manzana. They were incredible to work with and we are all delighted with what they achieved.”

OPUS was both the engineers and the architects for what they describe as a “state of the art school”.

One of the overall themes in the brief to OPUS from the beginning was to utilise sustainable design principles, and a Green Star rating was aimed for. Mahinawa are thrilled to have recently been awarded a 5-Star rating, making them only the fifth school in the country to achieve excellence in green building. Features that helped the school meet its goals of sustainability include solar hot water heating, natural ventilation, low VOC levels of material selection and sustainably sourced timber.

With Arrow International introduced to the development as the project management firm, and Mainzeal in charge of the construction, the project ran smoothly, and the school was opened earlier this year. Arrow International project director, Simon Shaw, found it a unique and inspiring development. “School projects are always rewarding, however this school had many special requirements so it was even more so.”

A traditional tender process led both the large-scale companies to the project, and cost-saving options were an integral component of the job. Likewise, general excellence in terms of the design and build was expected. “Our team really enjoyed working on this project, most especially because it will benefit so many young people within the community,” says Greg McFetridge, Mainzeal’s central region general manager.

The contemporary school is single-level, with a curved floor plan to appeal to the students. “Autistic children in particular do not like long straight halls, and we introduced a curved hallway for this very reason,” says Stanton. “Having great space has helped the pupils enormously, but we also feel that the curved hall has had a significant impact.”

As part of the construction, there were many special features that had to be incorporated. One of the classrooms has unique built-in hoists for children in need, and the hoist system accesses a number of adjoining rooms too. This meant, in terms of the build itself, that a hoist rail had to cut through several doorframes.

Unique interactive whiteboards were also incorporated into the classrooms, supplied by Manzana. “It was an enjoyable project to work on, because we knew the kids were going to love what we were creating,” says Aaron Crawford from Manzana. “The feedback has been fantastic, and the students are really engaged because of the whiteboards, so the technology has been a huge success.”

The land around the new school was thoroughly rejuvenated as part of the development, with a cycle track, a sensory and general playground, and an orchard all incorporated. The stream running through the grounds was planted with riparian plants and cleared of weeds to encourage a more stabilised ecology, and all of the plants were sourced locally as part of the project’s sustainable ethos.Mahinawa Specialist School

“This school really is a dream come true,” says Stanton.

After all her years dreaming of what could be created for special needs students, Mahinawa is testament to the determination of all the staff at the former Kapi-Mana school. Children with physical, emotional and mental disabilities are catered for in this unique environment. Mahinawa is now proud to have four satellite classrooms, meaning a class that belongs to the school but is physically operated at a mainstream school, as well as five classes on campus. There is an average of six pupils per class, and a special team of therapists for each class is provided.

“There is something incredibly stimulating about teaching students with special needs,” explains Stanton. “No two days are the same, and in fact, often no two hours are the same, so it’s certainly rewarding.” The school day starts at 8.30am, like many other schools, however there is only a half-hour break for lunch and the day ends at 2.45pm, when the taxis arrive to transport the students home. “We don’t want a long lunch period or other extended breaks, because if there’s going to be any trouble or problems, that’s when they would occur.”

The potential for the new school is bright, and although Stanton will be retiring in the not so distant future, she is excited about what Mahinawa will continue to achieve. “We would like to one day open our doors to students who are failing in mainstream schools, so they could come here for a set period of time, before entering the mainstream system again. Specialist schools need to be an important part of the education system, because mainstream just simply doesn’t work for all students. The concept of inclusion shouldn’t mean that every student needs to be at a mainstream school, because inclusion is wherever a pupil feels most welcome.”

Stanton is also optimistic that paediatric child development assessments will one day be held at the school, rather than at the nearby hospital. This would allow the students to be assessed in an environment where they feel most comfortable, and where the paediatric specialists can speak to the therapists and teachers first hand about each child’s development.

In years past, special needs children were not provided with the very necessary resources required for them to learn. Mahinawa is a visionary school, made possible by a dedicated principal, staff and board of trustees, and the companies charged with making it real.

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