Elizabeth Grafious knows what it’s like to be the parent of a child with special needs.



That’s why she is so adamant about serving families of children with disabilities at Out of the Box Academy, which she founded five years ago.



“The needs of the families drive our services,” said Grafious, a special education teacher for more than 18 years. “We look at the needs of our students and their families and listen to what they say, so that we can fill in the gaps to make sure their needs are met.”



On June 13, Out of the Box will relocate from space in four buildings throughout the Akron area to a 26,000-square-foot building at 1011 Gorge Blvd., next to Akron’s North High School.



The school serves students ages 5 to 21 who have mild to severe disabilities, those on the autism spectrum and those with dual diagnoses. Its curriculum meets Ohio Department of Education guidelines for state standards.



Out of the Box’s new home, a former U.S. Army Reserve Center, has been renovated to include two state-of-the-art, custom-built Snoezelen rooms — controlled multisensory environments that feature a blend of sights, sounds, textures, aromas and motion that help students regain and maintain comfortable levels of sensory stimulation. The building also has a calming room where students who feel overwhelmed can relax and use interactive sensory boards that help with de-escalation.



Other sensory features in the building include a school pet (a bearded dragon) that students can hold, feed and bathe, and a touch tank with water, bubbles, gravel and aquatic animals. The touch tank can also be used to teach students about habitat and ecosystems.



The building is decorated with furniture and wall coverings chosen by Jamie Morris of Dreamland Designs, who specializes in designing spaces for students with disabilities.



“I tried to stretch the school’s dollar, so about 90 percent of what we used is from Habitat for Humanity ReStore,” Morris said. “We designed it so that if a child wants to pick up something or touch it, it’s not a problem. The students can pull things off the wall and it’s no problem for a teacher or staff person to put it back. Our goal was to make it a homey setting, not a traditional or clinical setting.”



The school has an enrollment of 55 students and offers three educational programs — Calm Horizons, Explorers and Transitions.



Transitions is designed to teach independent daily living and employment skills. The program has classrooms that are set up like real businesses, where students might find jobs, like a diner area where students learn how to host, wait tables, cashier, clear and clean tables, sweep floors, wash dishes and prepare food. Other classrooms focus on careers in cosmetology, carpentry, child care, retail stores, medical offices and veterinary clinics.



Skills taught in the vocational-technical program include small engine repair, mail handling, animal care, auto body, auto detailing, masonry, sewing, mail handling, drafting and horticulture.



The independent daily living components include an apartment setting and a banking station, sponsored by Citizens Bank. Students are also taught social skills, communication skills, how to develop friendships and how to recognize and avoid cyber bullying.



Explorers offers a personalized classroom experience that focuses on each students area of high interest, gifts and talents. In addition to their Individualized Educational Plans, each student has access to transition, behavior and care plans that help them services receive services outside the school day. The school also offers an on-call staff person who can be contacted 24/7 and incorporates special services, including speech and occupational therapy and applied behavior analysis.



Calm Horizons is structured for students who thrive in one-on-one situations. It focuses on behavioral and academic interventions.



“No matter what level our students are at, they can fully participate,” said Brandon Farr, spokesman for Out of the Box Academy. “Our goal is to help all of our students succeed and transition once they leave here, whether it’s to college, out of mom’s basement or to a group home.”



Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or cjenkins@thebeaconjournal.com. She can be followed at www.twitter.com/ColetteMJenkins.