New school takes care of special needs in Cumberland County

Wednesday, April 22, 2009
By MATT DUNN, Bridgeton News

FAIRFIELD TWP. - A number of special needs children in Cumberland County will no longer have to travel far to receive a quality education.

The ribbon was cut Tuesday on the brand new Cumberland County campus of the Salem County special services School District on Ramah Road.

The school, for children with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities, has been in operation since March, providing low teacher-to-student ratio driven education tailored toward youngsters who would have difficulty functioning in a regular school setting.

Cumberland County Freeholder Director Lou Magazzu, whose freeholder board in 2006 pledged $200,000 a year to the district for seven years, helped cut the ribbon on the school along with state Sen. Steve Sweeney, other members of the Cumberland and Salem County freeholder boards and Superintendent Loren Thomas.

"There are days that are great days, and there are days that there are tough days. This is a great day," Magazzu said.

Principal EvaMarie Raleigh said that a little less than 30 Pre-K to 8th-grade students are enrolled in the school, which has a maximum student body of 32 to 36 students.

"The average class size is about four children," she said.

The students come from schools in Cumberland and Salem counties, which pay tuition to the Salem County Special Services school district.

Tuition payments are the primary revenue source sustaining the budget of the school district, which supported the cost to renovate the Cumberland campus building - formerly the Fairfield Township Elementary School, which the district bought about two years ago.

The school district took out a bond through the Salem County Freeholder Board to fund the renovations. It also received funding through the state. Total cost of the renovations was about $6 million to a design by Garrison Architects of Mt. Laurel..

State Sen. Steve Sweeney on Tuesday praised both the cost-efficiency and purpose of the school.

"(Cumberland and Salem counties) joined together with the Salem County Special Services School District to save taxpayers money and provide a service that is sorely needed."

Students who attend the Cumberland campus of the Salem County Special Services School District, in order to receive specialized education, previously had to attend the district's Salem County campus or attend schools in Gloucester, Cape May or Atlantic counties.

The long bus rides could be stressful to children, especially those with autism, and were costly to sending school districts.

Maintaining a good environment for children with autism or other social communicative disorders was important in renovating the former Fairfield Township Elementary School.

The new Cumberland campus building includes special low lighting aimed at reducing anxiety, added safety measures, such as rubberized floors in some rooms, and is fully ADA compliant.

The building includes a music therapy room, gymnasium/cafeteria and playroom.

Raleigh said future plans are to convert the second floor into a mock kitchen, dining room and living room, to teach children "life skills" and possible create space for more children, expanding the school's maximum student body to 60 to 70 students.


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