Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013 | 2 a.m.
As thousands of Clark County students returned from winter break to familiar classrooms on Monday, more than 100 Variety School students had their first day back in a brand-new building.
Variety, which serves about 150 special-needs students, moved into an $18 million, state-of-the-art campus on Monday. The new school, 2800 E. Stewart Ave., replaced its predecessor just a block away and is built on the former site of Roy Martin Middle School, which was destroyed by fire several years ago.
The old site of Variety had been showing its age, Principal Tyler Hall said. Built in 1952, the building lacked sufficient technology and had frequent issues with its heating and cooling units. The old campus didn't even have a gym.
Hall won't have to deal with those problems in the new school, constructed over the past year with the last of the 1998 school bond money.
"I'm really, really excited," Hall said during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday morning. "Having a new building will give us more opportunities to provide academic and vocational programs for our students. We're just thrilled."
Nearly 32,000 special-needs children — representing about 10 percent of the student population — are in the Clark County School District. The vast majority of these students attend their neighborhood schools, participating in special or mainstreamed programs.
Variety School caters specifically to students with the most severe emotional and mental challenges. Students ages 6 to 22 are referred to Variety if their neighborhood schools do not provide ample special-needs programs to support them.
"The students here come with some pretty unique challenges," said Clark County Schools Superintendent Dwight Jones. The new campus "will help kids meet their needs and achieve their dreams."
The new Variety School offers fresh features that emphasize academic and vocational skills to help developmentally challenged students succeed after high school.
In one classroom set up like a kitchen, students learn how to make pizzas and submarine sandwiches. Inside the laundry room next door, students learn proper clothes-washing techniques that can lead to internship opportunities with Caesars Entertainment.
A copy room down the hall helps students become competent paper copiers, setting them up for jobs at copy shops. Students also can master independent living inside Variety's mock apartment, complete with a mini kitchen, bathroom, doorbell and mailbox.
"For some of these students, (learning how to live independently) is their biggest challenge," said architect Jim Lord, a partner at KGA Architecture, which designed the new school. "We wanted to design a campus that would prepare students to respond to the world outside of the classroom and teach them how to live on their own."
KGA — which also designed Advanced Technologies Academy and rural high schools such as Virgin Valley, Mesquite and Laughlin — worked closely with contractor Martin Harris and Variety teachers to plan the new campus.
The architects worked especially hard to incorporate design elements to help special-needs students, Lord said. That's important because studies have shown a school's layout can influence students' academic performance.
For example, hallways are color-coded to help students navigate the 8,500-square-foot campus. Woodlike vinyl flooring is designed to create an inviting homey atmosphere for students. And all of the school's 27 classrooms have access to several small, fenced-in courtyards, providing students with easy access to the outdoors.
Architects also made sure light fixtures didn't buzz, so as not to distract or bother students sensitive to sound. Plenty of natural light floods the environmentally friendly school to provide a cheerful but calm atmosphere, Lord said.
However, because of the unique nature of its students and Variety's proximity to heavily congested U.S. 95 and Eastern Avenue, there were several safety concerns that had to be addressed. Double-walled, chain-link fences surround the campus to deter students from running away, Lord said.
School officials said they hope the new campus — with all of its special designs and programs — will become a model for special education throughout Clark County. Already, Variety has partnered with the Cleveland Clinic to offer training for special-education teachers across the valley.
"We want to help our students reach their full potential," School Board member Lorraine Alderman said. "We want them to become productive citizens despite whatever their disabilities are."