When Back to School Means More than Academics

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For nearly 40 years, Crescent Hill Academy in Pennsauken has been providing therapeutic interventions and special education for children in three South Jersey counties.

By Matt Skoufalos | September 5, 2018

Crescent Hill Academy Executive Director Al Minicozzi. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

For most parents, back-to-school season means last-minute haircuts, shopping for supplies, and hawking the mailbox for classroom assignments.

But for families of students at the Crescent Hill Academy in Pennsauken, it’s the start of another year of vital services for children and adolescents who require a level of care beyond what many classrooms can provide.

Fred Minicozzi first encountered the facility in 1969 when it was a treatment center for special-needs children like his daughter, Rose Ellen.

His son, Al, remembers how instrumental Fred was in directing the development of the school, as he worked to build a curriculum for his daughter that didn’t yet exist.

“I was immersed in this my whole life, and I saw how my sister had nothing for her,” Al Minicozzi said. “It gave her a place to go to school, to get therapies, and she graduated to an adult activity center, where she resides now.

“My parents lived their whole lives through my sister,” he said. “It made a difference in her life. I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps in making a difference in the world, and to help people who I think needed the greatest help.”

An inspirational bulletin board at Crescent Hill Academy in Pennsauken. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

Al Minicozzi pursued that goal by earning a master’s degree in administration, supervision, and educational leadership before eventually taking over the executive directorship at Crescent Hill Academy.

He estimates he’s accumulated almost 400 days of sick leave since starting at the school as a teacher in 1984.

In that time, he’s refused to quit his post for more than 10 total days, working nights and weekends even amid a four-year battle with colon cancer.

“I want this place to be better,” Al Minicozzi said. “I’d rather see the kids get an environment where they get more than anybody else gets in any school setting.”

Those long hours are necessary to keep up with the extended-year program offered at Crescent Hill Academy. The school receives students from throughout the tri-county area from September through June, and runs an extended, six-week summer program through mid-August.

This year, Crescent Hill launched Bright Beginnings, a new preschool program for children aged three to five. Along with its occupational, speech, and physical therapy programs, the school delivers an academic curriculum for students up to age 21. With a full-time nurse on staff, and class sizes no bigger than seven students, it’s also specially equipped to meet the needs of people with behavioral and physical disabilities.

Classrooms at Crescent Hill Academy include adaptive technologies and therapeutic devices. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

“We’re a family environment where we’re going to give you a three-to-one ratio, a certified teacher, and a certified aide,” Al Minicozzi said.

He describes Crescent Hill Academy as “small but mighty,” and dedicated to the advancement of students according to their individual needs and goals.

The school has an open-door policy for visiting family members, and invites prospective clients to tour the facility at any time as well.

“I think what sets us truly apart is the fact that we are close-knit,” Al Minicozzi said. “Our program is geared to each child individually, whether it be therapeutic, academically, sensory-related; all three are tied together in one.”

Currently, Crescent Hill Academy has the capacity to serve as many as 30 new students, and with special education services covered by the state, it’s free for New Jersey schoolchildren to attend. The cost of enrollment is covered by their local sending districts, and includes all therapies administered onsite. Door-to-door transportation is provided with accommodations for students with travel restrictions.

Crescent Hill Academy Executive Director Al Minicozzi in one of the physical therapy suites at the school. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

“Most parents don’t know it’s free to them,” Al Minicozzi said. “There is a great need, and most parents don’t have the resources or know the law.”

In dealing with medically fragile students, there is also the possibility that some of them will not finish out a school year that they begin.

That somber reality is a “gut-wrenching” reality of caregiving for children who have intense medical needs, but one that is a part of the experience, Al Minicozzi said.

“It’s heart-wrenching,” he said. “But I got into this business because I wanted to help people who couldn’t help themselves.

“There are a lot of prejudices in this world,” Al Minicozzi said. “I wanted in my life, and I still feel this way, to try to make a difference.”

Crescent Hill Academy is located at 7512 North Crescent Boulevard in Pennsauken. For more information, call 856-662-7300, or visit the school website.

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