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Level four special education facilities in the works

Throughout the region, there are 5,890 students eligible for special education services, 84 of which qualify for level four care, according to Detroit Lakes Public Schools Superintendent Doug Froke.

Level (or setting) four students are considered learners who receive education programs in public separate day school facilities, including students for more than 50 percent of the school day in a specially designed facility or program for special education students only.

In order to fit those needs, the Lakes Country Service Cooperative—an operation that is run jointly by all of the school districts in the region, representing Becker, Clay, Douglas, Grant, Otter Tail, Pope, Stevens, Traverse and Wilkin counties—will be opening three specialized schools for the 2017-2018 school year in Moorhead, Fergus Falls and Alexandria.

Then, a facility with level four care capabilities will be opened in the Detroit Lakes area for the 2018-2019 school year, Froke said, meaning that it could be opened in Lake Park, Audubon or another surrounding town if the space is not available in Detroit Lakes itself.

"Next year, we'll be able to address 24 of those students' needs," he explained, "There's a need to expand and create other sites. We're still running short, and this is going to be an issue that is going to grow."

The region currently has just two specialized facilities, which are located in Deer Creek and Starbuck.

According to Lori Murdock, special education director for the Freshwater Education District—which consists of 10 school districts, including Wadena-Deer Creek—the Deer Creek facility can support up to 36 students.

Although the facility mainly works with students within the districts under the Freshwater Education District, she said, they do accept students from other districts.

However, the facility currently has a waiting list and is a bit of a drive from Detroit Lakes.

"It's very difficult to have the students that need these kinds of facilities transported to a location far away because it takes a lot of time out of their day," Murdock said. "Plus, some students really benefit from the small, structured setting, so it's important to have these facilities in the region to fit the needs of the students in the area."

As the need continues to grow, then, another recurring need comes up: space.

By working with LCSC, area schools are able to cooperatively fund the facilities; the Detroit Lakes School District is one of the four largest districts in the region, Froke said, so it will be contributing $4,394 to support a building lease for the new facilities.

"As it relates to the level four program, state law makes it more advantageous for service cooperatives to support a program like this than it does for an individual district," he said. "So, that's why they're spearheading the campaign and organizing this."

Currently, the 10 students that qualify for level four services in the Detroit Lakes School District receive services within the walls of the Detroit Lakes schools. Froke explained that programming is developed for the students, two of which are in elementary school and eight of which are in secondary school.

"We have to find space in DL-- which is easier said than done—so we need to find a space where we could get the program up and running in this immediate area," he explained. "It's a very, very good thing for kids, parents and school districts."