- 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 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
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
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,"