A rendering of Pressley Ridge's new school serving autistic and deaf students, expected to open for the 2019-2020 school year. Image courtesy of Pressley Ridge.

Each year, Pressley Ridge serves 7,300 children and families in six states, but its latest project is building a strong foundation — literally — right on its Marshall Avenue campus on the North Side.

Builders broke ground at noon today on the Pressley Ridge School for Autism and Pressley Ridge School for the Deaf, a new state-of-the-art school designed to enhance learning for students on the autism spectrum and those who are Deaf and hard of hearing. The school — which will replace various spaces the agency has leased for 20 years — is expected to open in time for the start of the 2019-2020 school year.

The next step forward

Since 1832, Pressley Ridge has made a home on Pittsburgh’s North Side for children with special physical, behavioral and emotional needs. Over two centuries, the nonprofit has evolved from its beginnings as a pair of orphanages to offer a comprehensive range of services, including foster care, mental health treatment and education.

This new school will take that work even further.

“This is a really exciting time,” says Susanne L. Cole, Pressley Ridge’s president and CEO. “It’s an opportunity to help kids have not only the best academic experience, but also the best sensory experience.”

She’s referring to features like calming areas and large sensory rooms with adjustable strobe lighting, textiles, swings and other comforting objects. The school will span more than 30,000 square feet and three stories, with a student-run coffee shop, STEAM and culinary education classrooms, and the FedEx Ground Practical Assessment Exploration System (PAES) Lab to allow students to explore simulated work environments through hands-on experiences.

The PAES Lab and coffee shop, says Cole, give students real-world experiences with customer service and provide “a way to interact differently than they would with their class and their teachers.”

Unique design process

The building will have six classrooms for the School for Autism and five for the School for the Deaf — complete with SmartBoard technology, restrooms and calming areas — as well as a multipurpose room, cafeteria, computer and media labs and ample office space for teachers and administrators.

In addition to partnering with Oxford Development Company, Radelet McCarthy Poletta and the Walsh Group on the project, Pressley Ridge staff consulted with experts in the autism and Deaf communities to learn the best ways to serve and accommodate students with these challenges.

For instance, Cathy Cherry, special needs architect and founder of Annapolis-based Purple Cherry Architects, has an adult son with autism. She shared her expertise on the ways color, pattern and textures can impact people on the spectrum. The staff also worked with a Deaf architect from St. Louis firm Mackey Mitchell Architects. One takeaway? The School for the Deaf will have more open spaces to improve sight lines and enhance communication for students and teachers who use sign language.

Fundraising for the $12 million facility is underway, with the Pressley Ridge Foundation kicking off its PR2020: Building a School for Successful Futures capital campaign with a $3 million gift. Other early supporters include FedEx Ground and Massey Charitable Trust.

County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Mayor Bill Peduto were among the guests at the groundbreaking, which also included remarks from Pressley Ridge staff, parents and board members.

“We are currently at our capacity,” said Cole in a video promoting the PR2020 campaign. “By building the school today, it allows us to be able to serve more kids, so that children aren’t going to be on waiting lists: Kids can get their needs met right now, when they need it.”

Emily Stimmel

Emily fell in love with the written word as a teenager, when she published zines and wrote for her school paper. Today, she is a freelance writer with a decade and a half of experience in non-profit communications....