FIRST LOOK: Inside Ann Arbor's newly rebuilt, state-of-the-art High Point School

The revamped school features numerous improvements tailored to the needs of the students with disabilities whom it serves.
Washtenaw Intermediate School District (WISD) Superintendent Naomi Norman recently found out that a longstanding rumor about one of WISD's Ann Arbor buildings was indeed true. It had been speculated that a time capsule was hidden away somewhere inside High Point School, 1735 S. Wagner Rd. in Ann Arbor, which is dedicated to serving students with disabilities. After voters approved a $53.2 million WISD bond in August 2019 to demolish and rebuild the nearly 45-year-old building, a copper container that had been welded shut and placed in a wall was found during last year's construction process. What was inside left Norman more excited than ever for the High Point students who will return to a state-of-the-art building this month. 

"The people who put that time capsule together would be really proud of us and what we have done to push their vision forward," she says. 
WISD Superintendent Naomi Norman.
Norman shares that in addition to things like tile and paint samples from the school's original build (in then-trendy hues of goldenrod yellow and avocado), the capsule contained an original report created by numerous community members and leaders. At the time, most children with special education needs were being taught in ad hoc places such as church basements. They were mostly unseen and isolated. The report argued the need for change.

"It was people, like church leaders, who were stepping up and saying that we need to treat all children in ways that honor who they were as people, and that it was wrong that they didn't have a school," Norman says. "It would bring smiles to their faces to know that today we have built upon their work and created the most practical and stunning learning environment, and we have these students fully included in our classrooms."

Ashley Kryscynski, WISD communications and public relations specialist, says that when the original High Point building opened in 1975, it was so revolutionary that people from all over the state would come to visit. Back then it served students with cognitive disabilities who were able to undertake vocational studies like beauty school or auto shop training. Today, the program serves kids with multiple severe disabilities, those who are medically fragile, and those with severe cognitive impairments. 

"It's a totally different group of kids today and we needed a building that would match their needs, so in the end, we tore down everything except the gym and the swimming pool," Kryscynski says. "What we've created will definitely have people coming in from all over to take a look and learn from us."
Finishing touches on the High Point School pool with a new ramp.
The new building houses classrooms for High Point students, Honey Creek Community School, students in WISD's deaf and hard-of-hearing program, and a Gretchen’s House child care center. Space is also being reserved for future growth. 

"Most programs in other communities are center-based programs, and that means that students with severe disabilities find themselves alone," Kryscynski says. "We feel that it's really important to have these students learning alongside their general education peers."

From making do to doing better

Nothing has been spared in High Point's renovations. A new covered school bus canopy and heated sidewalks will protect students who have mobility challenges while they are transferred between buses, wheelchairs, and other adaptive equipment, an often-lengthy process that used to leave kids and teachers exposed if there was inclement weather. Art installations have been placed on the ceilings for students who get around using equipment on which they face upwards. A ramp has been built into the swimming pool to replace an old metal predecessor. An accessible outdoor path now allows students to enjoy the property's beautiful wooded areas. Inclusive playground equipment has been added. And lighting that changes from warm to cool hues has been placed in classroom ceilings to help students with sensory needs.

High Point teacher Nancy Davis taught in the building for nine years before the renovation. She says the upgrades she's most excited about are additional classroom storage and new designated "parking spaces" for students' wheelchairs and other medical equipment in the newly widened halls. 

"It's really hard to wrestle with wheelchairs and multiple pieces of equipment in narrow hallways. Before, we were struggling through the front door and we really couldn't pass each other easily," she says. "We were making do and now we'll be doing better."

Jennifer Parrelly, who has been High Point's principal for five years, agrees with Davis. She says staff always had to adapt to the old space, but now that stress is lifted. She says that when she first started in her role, she walked around with a map for two weeks because the old building was so confusing.
High Point School principal Jennifer Parrelly.
"It was a honeycomb that branched off and kept going and going. I kept thinking that if I was having a hard time, then our students would find challenges too. I want to encourage students' lifetime independence, and that was a bit of a challenge previously because of the old layout," Parrelly says. "I'm hoping that the new changes will allow us to teach some more independence-building skills."

Norman contends that High Point's reincarnation will affect not just High Point students, but everyone in Washtenaw County. 

"We didn't just build a state-of-the art building to meet the needs of a really unique group of young people. We've built a place that is representative of the county and its residents who, like us, value all of our community's children," she says. "It's a dynamic move that will strengthen our students' learning as well as inclusivity throughout the county."

Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at jaishreeedit@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.