Thursday, March 23, 2023

Tiejun Hui of SIEC Group and Saplings principal Kerrie Wickham turn the sod on the site of the Saplings new school in Graiguecullen. Also pictured are Janet Duminy, chairperson of the board of management, and pupils of Saplings Carlow

THE school community and board of management at Saplings Special School were delighted to break ground at their new school in Fruithill, Graiguecullen last week.

It has long been apparent at the school that its current premises in Killeshin were insufficient as well as expensive in terms of rent and operating costs. The school has been renting prefab accommodation that’s more than a decade old, and part of its premises is an old school building that was constructed in 1949. All of the buildings are separate and spread over a three-acre site with an adjoining community centre and community businesses such as a hairdresser’s, a café, a physio and accountants.

The board of Saplings have been working tirelessly to secure a permanent solution for the benefit of students, staff and the broader community.

The new 1,200sqm building will incorporate a purpose-built functional school, with each classroom having its own resource room, sensory room, toilet suites and their own contained garden. A suite of therapy and sensory rooms will be on one side of the school, including a life skills room and a PE hall. A sensory garden will wrap around the building and will include an outer playground and amphitheatre for the students to avail of an outdoor classroom space.

Speaking about the new school, principal Kerrie Wickham said: “To have the purpose-built building … it’s going to be a massive, hugely positive thing for children. Children who are maybe hypersensitive or have various sensory issues, prefabs are not a great solution for them. It’s not the best environment.”

She added: “To have the opportunity to go to school in the beautiful building that’s built specifically for them, that’s going to be amazing. It will function exactly the way we want.”

The opportunity to develop a new school first became a reality three years ago. Saplings sought and received the transfer of lands at Graiguecullen from Laois County Council in 2021. And the board wishes to highlight the enthusiastic assistance from council officials and councillors, without whom the entire project would have been in jeopardy. The board added that it also would not have been possible without the hard work of stakeholders within the Saplings family, including but not limited to the principal, members of the board, the staff and the parents.

Saplings has also been assisted in this project by the SIEC Group, which helped to identify potential sources of funding and sites and brought together relevant professionals to drive the design and delivery of the project. SIEC Group has previously been and continues to be involved in the delivery of social housing in Laois and the surrounding counties.

From the breaking of ground, the design team and contractors anticipate the project being completed in mid-2024, with a view to having the facility fully up and running in time for the subsequent school year.

Saplings first opened its doors in 2007 after years of lobbying. Students who attend Saplings do so mainly because of the severity of their autism, which can impact greatly on all aspects of their daily life, and the need for a high level of behavioural support that only a school like this can provide. Many of the students have come from mainstream, ASD units or special schools, or were possibly excluded from school because they needed the specific interventions of a specialised setting.

The service currently accommodates 30 pupils with a principal and behaviour analyst, five teachers and 17 SNAs.

The school serves counties Offaly, Laois, South Kildare, Carlow and Kilkenny and has enquiries from Wexford. As it has a specific and specialised service with a team of highly-qualified staff, the demand for placements in Saplings is extremely high, but it cannot take any further enrolments.

The new site in Fruithill, Graiguecullen will provide for 36 pupils, with room to expand at a later point, if required.



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