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Designing a Day Treatment Center that Functions as a School

By Kasia Bulkowski

Associate Principal

By Katie Vander Putten

Director of Healthcare

CCSD Day Treatment Center home base nook

The kids are not alright.

A recent report from the Clarify Mental Health Institute, based on a sample of health insurance claims for 20 million American children aged 1-19 from 2016-2021, presented some alarming statistics. A 61% increase in admissions to inpatient mental health hospitals. A 20% increase in emergency room visits for mental health reasons.

These statistics are nationwide, but there’s plenty of evidence that kids in Colorado are no exception to this trend. In reviewing data from the 2018-19 school year, the district staff at Cherry Creek Schools, the state’s fourth largest school district, saw some equally alarming statistics. Suicide risk assessments were up 50% from four years prior. Threat assessments were up 300% over the same period.

These statistics are concerning, with no context needed—but what really worried the district was that they were already trying to address the problem. The district had recently completed a project that placed full-time mental health professionals in every one of its 70 schools, one in every elementary, two in every middle, and three in every high school. But it wasn’t enough—the numbers were still going up.

What seemed to offer some hope was the opportunity to place students in crisis in a day treatment program, where they could receive the intensive support impossible to provide in the standard school facility. But day treatment placements were not only expensive, they were also limited in number and growing smaller every year, with facility closures and diminished state-level investment.

The kids were not alright, and the district decided to do something about it.

In the fall of 2023, Colorado’s Cherry Creek School District will open Traverse Academy, the nation’s first school district-owned and -operated day treatment center. Serving grades 4 through 12, students will receive the mental health support they need, including individual and group therapy, while preparing for the transition back into regular school.

As part school and part mental health crisis center, Traverse Academy represents an unusual composite program—with no obvious precedent. The unique nature of the project sent the multidisciplinary team, led by Cherry Creek Schools and MOA ARCHITECTURE, to build the program from the bottom up. Following extensive research, visioning and planning sessions, and user group meetings—including with students and former students who had experienced mental health crises—a program emerged.

The result defined a new type of space—a space between the structure of an inpatient mental health facility and the open-ended activity of a public high school. The program pushes against the stereotypes of both buildings; the program “de-institutionalizes,” subverting user expectations.

An essential part of the programming process was a “day in the life” exercise, where the team explored a typical day for a student in the facility. What aspects of the facility might be triggering? What could we do to eliminate or manage those triggers?

When you enter most medical facilities, the first thing you encounter is a check-in desk. There isn’t much welcoming about a check-in desk—it’s mainly a secure and practical design measure. The project team decided that a typical check-in desk ran counter to the district’s project vision. Instead, you enter the facility and come into a lobby with comfortable furniture and a coffee bar. The space still features the safety and security necessary for the facility type, including ligature-resistant design, but the program and accompanying design does not foreground those institutional aspects—they are invisible, in the background.

The team also wanted to downplay the facility’s association with a typical school. Recognizing their association with bullying, the team avoided group restrooms in favor of highly secure single-use restrooms. The team also recognized the power of room names, so there are no “classrooms” in this building—there are “home bases,” a term that captures the more fluid role these spaces play during a student’s typical day.

Currently under construction, everyone at MOA and Cherry Creek Schools is excited to see this ground-breaking new program come to life starting in the fall of 2023. We are hopeful this new facility will make a dent in the district’s troubling statistics, hopeful that other districts will see this project as a model for how to address our kids’ ongoing mental health crisis.

We’re hopeful that we can add an optimistic coda to the refrain that opened this article: The kids are not alright, but there’s something we can do about it.

A version of this article was previously published in the Colorado Real Estate Journal.