Bankbridge School Starts Construction
May 6 , 2006
Posted by the Gloucester County Times by Matthew Ralph

Students launch autism school work

DEPTFORD TWP. -- With the hum of earth-moving equipment in the background, 9-year-old Thomas Cooney pushed a shovel into the ground, ceremonially breaking ground for the $13 million school for the autistic and multiply disabled he will begin attending in September 2007.

Cooney and several of his classmates from the Child Development Center in Washington Township joined Gov. Jon Corzine and a crowd of school and county officials at the future site of the Bankbridge Development Center for the ceremony Friday afternoon.

"More than anything this school is going to provide more resources and opportunities for my son," said Thomas' father, Bob Cooney, of Washington Township. "It's a choice we have."

Cooney enrolled his son in the county special services district when he was 3 years old. At the time, Cooney said, he thought the Child Development Center was "bursting at the seams" with fewer than 40 students. Now, there are close to 100 students with autism between the CDC and Bankbridge Regional and Elementary schools.

The new development center, being built on Salina Road near the county superintendent's office on land donated by Gloucester County College, will bring all of the students with autism and multiple disabilities and their teachers, aides, therapists, counselors and child study teams under one roof.

GreyHawk North America, LLC. is the district's project management firm and Garrison Architects designed the facility.

Fred Keating, superintendent of the special services district, said the school will be much more than a building offering services to its student body, which is projected to be roughly 200 students ages 3 to 21. The one-story, 52,000-square-foot building will have 20 classrooms equipped with specialized lighting, textures and bathroom accessibility to minimize difficulties related to the disorder.

"We're designing this around the idea of a parent center and a resource to the local school districts," Keating said, noting that the school will also be a learning lab for research and instructional training. "It's not just children coming here, end of story."
Autism is a complex development disorder that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, impacts 1 in 166 individuals, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined.

Mike Dicken, director of special education programs, said enrollment growth in Gloucester County's schools has contributed to a growing demand for special education instruction, particularly for students with autism.

"They're either in other programs, not been diagnosed or new children in Gloucester County," Dicken said, describing the additional students who will fill the larger school when it opens in 2007. An additional 25 to 30 employees will be needed to staff the building, school officials said.

County officials have estimated that the school will save county taxpayers about $1 million annually in tuition costs incurred for educating the county's autistic children in private schools.

Officials estimate that the budget is about $1 million less than the $14 million bonded through the Gloucester County Improvement Authority (GCIA) last November. The county is anticipating $7 million reimbursement from the state Department of Education for the project in the form of debt service each year over the life of the loan.

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