Bancroft's new Mount Laurel campus begins to take shape

Construction on the Lindens Area of the campus progresses at the new Bancroft campus being built in Mount Laurel.

When Margaret Bancroft left her teaching job in Philadelphia 134 years ago and began a school in Haddonfield for children with developmental needs, only one student initially was enrolled.

It was a risk that paid off, said Toni Pergolin, who now heads Bancroft, which has grown to become a regional institution that serves hundreds of children and adults with autism and other intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Pergolin spoke Tuesday as she showed a visitor around construction, in varying stages of completion, of Bancroft’s planned new and bigger campus, in Mount Laurel.

The Haddonfield campus has been sold and will be shut to students at the end of the year. In January, the school will open anew at the 80-acre complex in Mount Laurel and when fully occupied could serve as many as 265 students, including 74 in new residential housing. An additional 24, with extreme behavioral issues, would be accommodated in a satellite facility on the campus.

The school purchased the grounds in 2014, and groundbreaking and construction began in August 2016. On Tuesday, construction crews worked to build up the walls of several buildings.

"We are overwhelmed with what this will mean for our son, Caden," Anne Chandler, of Atco, said in a phone interview. "The larger facility with more space will allow him to grow and is a sign Bancroft cares about the children it's serving."

Caden, 12, was diagnosed with nonverbal autism at age 3. He began attending Bancroft at age 6 when the Chandler family learned their Waterford school system could not accommodate his needs.

Thanks to Bancroft, Chandler said, Caden can now play sports and other activities the family never dreamed he could do.

The $75 million construction project includes a community facility with gym space, and the school's first pool and indoor playground. Beginnings of the community facility were evident at the site Tuesday, with concrete down in the gym and a digger where the pool will be excavated.

"This location marks a period of extreme growth for our school and anticipates the growing needs of special-education students for 50 to 100 years in the future," said Pergolin, president and chief executive of Bancroft.

At present, the accredited private school attracts students from South Jersey, the Philadelphia area, and Delaware. Its new location, on Walton Avenue just off Route 38 and I-295, is expected to attract students from central New Jersey, Pergolin said.

On Tuesday, construction workers put up scaffolding and hammered walls into place in the new school building. Pergolin, wearing a white hard hat, explained over the drone of the construction equipment that the building will have two wings -- one for its elementary-age children and another for students of high school age.

The cafeteria, still to be fitted with windows, sits at one end of the school. It won't have to double as a gym and an auditorium as it has in Haddonfield, Pergolin said.

The school will also have clinical therapy suites as well as nursing and medical offices.

Across from the new school building, five other structures were taking shape. They will become on-campus housing for students. When completed, they are to resemble a residential neighborhood and help train older students to one day live independently.

Bancroft has sold its existing Haddonfield facility to the borough. The project in Mount Laurel is being financed from the proceeds of the sale and bonds.

Ann Marie Leahey's son Luke, 20, has been utilizing Bancroft's services since age 2. Leahey says Luke can swim, ride a bike, and socialize because of professionals' work at Bancroft throughout the 18 years they've been involved with the school. Luke lives at home with his mother and father, David Vaughn, both of whom are physicians.

"Even as health professionals we needed the help," she said. "When I dress Luke every day for school, I dress him like his appearance matters. That's what Bancroft is doing with this new facility. Their new appearance matters, and that should mean a lot to everyone who uses their services."