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New accessible space a hit

Whare Awhina hosted an opening ceremony for its new learning space on May 27 – with special guest Masterton district councillor Frazer Mailman. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

The weather was “horrible” and there were a few last-minute adjustments to the guest list – but the students of Wairarapa College’s Whare Āwhina still had plenty to celebrate at the official opening of their new accessible learning space.

On May 27, Whare Āwhina (formerly known as the Supported Learning Centre) hosted an informal opening ceremony for its new building – completed at the start of this year – with a crowd of parents and supporters in attendance.

The new Whare Awhina building was purpose built for students with additional needs.

The 358 square metre learning space, a project made possible by fierce advocacy from staff, was purpose-built to cater for Whare Āwhina’s 22 students – who have various physical and learning [intellectual] disabilities.

The building, funded by the Ministry of Education, includes a range of accessible features: including a sensory room, break-out areas, bathrooms with several mobility aids, and a wheelchair-friendly technology suite – complete with brand new computers and interactive television.

A significant upgrade from Whare Āwhina’s old building – which was, as head teacher Amanda Kawana put it, “just a couple of old prefabricated classrooms joined together”, with “not much space” and few accommodations for disabled learners.

The Whare Āwhina community’s pride in its “home away from home” was on full display at the opening ceremony: with the students, unfazed by the cold and wet weather, performing an opening karakia and waiata.

This was followed by a speech from WaiCol principal Matt White and a “ribbon cutting”, led by Masterton district councillor Frazer Mailman [representing Mayor Lyn Patterson, who was unwell].

Kawana said she was “thrilled to bits”, both with the opening and the building – which she said has made “a big difference” to student and staff well-being.

“The new environment has made life so much less stressful for everyone,” she said.

“It all adds up: it’s things like having an office with doors big enough for a wheelchair to fit through, the extra rooms for the kids to have quiet time, a separate kitchen space, and a resource room where we can actually store things – opposed to just putting them wherever there was space.

“The new building was designed with young people with additional needs in mind. It’s an environment that works for them – and that’s the key to a successful education.

“It’s a total upgrade – we’re very lucky.”

Kawana said building work on the new space began in June 2020 – and Whare Āwhina teaching staff were heavily involved in the design process.

After several delays, mostly thanks to covid-19, the building was completed in time for Term 1, receiving a blessing from Mike Kawana of Rangitāne o Wairarapa.

The space features two main classrooms, three smaller break-out areas for group work and one-on-one teaching, a spacious staff room, fully accessible kitchen for “learning life skills”, and “de-escalation” room for students struggling with sensory overload – with an interactive touch pad, low lighting, calming music, and a rocking chair.

It has four accessible toilets and a large bathroom, kitted out with an electric ceiling hoist and safety railings for extra support.

Outside, there is an enclosed basketball court, herb garden – which the students maintain themselves – and several picnic benches.

Teacher Sue Partridge said the students were particularly enjoying the larger kitchen and technology area – which made a welcome change from the cramped and restrictive spaces in the previous building.

“It was a challenge for our kids who have sensory issues – there’d be a lot of action going on in a small area,” she said.

“We didn’t have the luxury of space – if the kids needed to escape from the noise for a bit, they had to go outside on to the deck.

“Now, if they need some down time, they can go to one of the break out rooms, or sit in the de-escalation room to chill out and cool down.”

Another welcome addition are the new computers – which students say are “much faster” than the “hand-me-down” machines from the previous building.

Though there were concerns some students would find the change in environment difficult, Partridge said the young people have “adjusted brilliantly” so far.

“Some of the kids we thought would struggle have all coped really well. They’ve been amazing.

“The space feels like home – got a real air about it. The kids love being here – they love coming to school.”

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