Glouco launches autism school
Friday, September 14 , 2007 By JEANNE RIDGWAY Courier-Post Staff
DEPTFORD - Gov. Jon Corzine joined 200 special education advocates to celebrate the opening of the Bankbridge Development Center, a new, state-of-the-art school here for students with autism and multiple disabilities. Friday's event attracted students, parents, educators and political leaders to the school on Salina Road adjacent to Gloucester County College.

Following a ribbon-cutting, visitors toured 20 classrooms and public areas. They also heard about the school's nonglare lighting and quiet interiors, a few of the school's special features that help keep autism students focused on their lessons. . The new school was designed by Garrison Architects of Mt. Laurel.

About 200 students, ages 3 through 21, attend the school. Programs include support groups, social and educational services for families, a special needs library, and student job and independent living training. "This (school) is so well-thought-out and planned, and gives our young people a great opportunity," said Corzine. The governor lauded the Gloucester County political leaders who spearheaded the project.

The facility, which was built for $13.9 million in bonds, is operated as part of the Gloucester County Special Services School District. According to the county freeholders, the new school will save taxpayers $25,000 annually per student. Freeholder-Director Stephen M. Sweeney, a long-standing champion of the project, said Bankbridge programs for parents will "take down the walls of isolation" that families of disabled children often feel.

In recent years, the county has built two other schools for special needs students, the Bankbridge Elementary and the Bankbridge Regional Schools. "I really thought opening those two schools was my proudest moment, but here we are," said Sweeney. "What a wonderful trifecta." Previously, students at the new school attended class in several other sites around the county. During a tour, senior occupational therapist Terry Sereno said the new building has quintupled her space, making room for more therapy equipment. One new piece of equipment is a "crash pit," a huge box filled with foam. Students dive in to safely blow off steam. "They think it's play, but we are actually giving them therapy," said Sereno. "We've got to keep that door closed, or the whole school would be in here all day."

Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that impairs a person's ability to communicate and relate to others. Nationally, 1 in 150 individuals is diagnosed with autism. New Jersey has the highest rate for the disorder, 1 in 92. The higher incidence here may be due to better awareness and diagnosis.

Unable to speak until age 4, Bankbridge student Tommy Cooney, 11, took the microphone Friday to sing a solo. The student belted out "God Bless America," a performance that moved Corzine. "No one can listen to Tommy and not know that there is great potential in every life," he said.

Frederick Keating, superintendent of schools for the Special Services School District, read a verse from the New Testament about the value of perseverance. "We know that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance, character; and character brings hope," Keating read. "The Bankbridge Development Center is quite simply hope," Keating said.


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