Students launch autism
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
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.