An exceptional journey

Posted on March 19, 2024

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From camp to school, the Golden Key Center for Exceptional Children has evolved to meet the changing needs of children with special needs.

The Golden Key Center for Exceptional Children embarked on its journey in 2007 as a summer camp catering to special needs children. Nearly two decades later, it has undergone a remarkable transformation, evolving into an accredited, non-public charter school dedicated to educating preschoolers through eighth graders with Autism and other developmental disabilities.

With small class sizes, enhanced therapy services, individualized curriculum and a deep understanding of disabilities, the private school offers a unique learning environment for its growing student body. 

HOW IT STARTED

The inception of the Golden Key traces back to an ongoing conversation between Terry Frank, who at the time was an autism intervention and educational specialist at Stark MRDD (now Stark County Board of Developmental Disabilities), and her friend Katherine Catazaro-Perry, a registered nurse and mother of a child with Down Syndrome. They often discussed the absence of after-school programming for special needs children and their shared passion for addressing this gap. Thus, the Golden Key Center for Exceptional Children was born, initially as a summer camp in collaboration with Stark MRDD.

The Golden Key later became an official nonprofit in 2008, with an established board of directors, including businessman and philanthropist Guy Cecchini. Guy knew co-founders Terry and Kathy were looking for a place to rent and he offered a building he owned at 30th Street NW in Canton for $1 a year in rent. 

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Reflecting on the Golden Key’s beginnings, Terry shared how one heartfelt inquiry prompted the school’s development: “When we started our childcare program, we were serving three students. Those families asked us: ‘Why can’t they go to school here?’ We started exploring it and it really evolved from there.”

As the school responded to the evolving needs of its students, its curriculum expanded from serving kindergarten through third grade, to then fifth grade and later eighth grade. This growth was guided by a deep understanding of the specialized education required by its students.

One parent, profoundly impacted by their son's experience at the Golden Key, shared:

“The Golden Key provides peace of mind that our child is guaranteed to be treated with respect and dignity even though he may be different from his peers. Within the first 90 days after enrolling in the program, he went from a five-word vocabulary to well over 100. That was the moment we knew we found the right place for our son!"

Oftentimes, when a family comes to the Golden Key for assistance, they are stressed and looking for a school that can meet their child's unique needs, knowing that their chance of success would be greater in a different educational environment. As a provider of the State of Ohio’s Jon Peterson Scholarship and Ohio Autism Scholarship, no family pays out of pocket for the education, intervention services and therapy support their children receive at the Golden Key. Taking the financial stress out of the equation allows families to focus solely on their children’s education.

HOW IT'S GOING

Today, the Golden Key is the area's largest private special needs school, serving nearly 130 students from 22 local school districts in preschool through eighth grade. 

The school serves both verbal and nonverbal children and places students in classrooms based on ability, not age, unlike a traditional school system.

Students receive education, intervention, speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, music and arts programming, tech and library science, social skills intervention, food therapy, relational and behavioral support and nursing services all under one roof–– making it easier on students and their families. 

One unique program even focuses on addressing eating difficulties common among children with autism. Staff are trained in Sequential Oral Sensory Therapy to help expand students' diets.

While the school’s programming has evolved over the years, so has its physical space.

In 2012, Golden Key purchased the building it was renting from Guy Cecchini on 30th Street NW with assistance from five local charitable foundations. 

However, the school found itself rapidly outgrowing the building in the following years due to increased student interest and expanded services. Although the possibility of acquiring a different building was entertained, it was deemed essential for the Golden Key to remain at its current location. This decision was made with students and their families in mind––a physical relocation could disrupt current students, who often struggle with change.

It was through the generous support from local foundations and other community partners that Golden Key underwent a $2.4 million renovation and expansion in 2022 to add more classrooms and restrooms, additional office and therapy spaces, a functional gym for increased physical
activity programs and a functional living space to teach independent living skills. 

Since the expansion, Golden Key has increased its enrollment by 20%, now up to 126 students. Despite this growth, there's still a lengthy waiting list, highlighting the ongoing need for specialized education in the community. 

For students who attend Golden Key, the impact can be life-changing. Take DJ’s family, for instance.

Before enrolling at Golden Key, DJ struggled in a mainstream public school, dealing with daily behavior issues that frequently resulted in him being sent home. Recognizing the need for a change, his parents began looking for a different educational environment.

DJ’s mother reflected on their decision, sharing:

“I researched many schools, but when we talked with the Golden Key, I knew that was the right choice for my son. I was scared as a mother to send my autistic child to a new school, on a bus and expect him to have good days. The team really stepped up and walked us through every process of the transition. Since that day, DJ has not been sent home from school one time. The Golden Key embraces who my child is and sees all the potential he has. I now have a child that values, loves and respects himself. As a parent with a special needs child, this is life-changing.”
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NEXT STEPS

Most recently, Terry has announced her retirement as Golden Key’s executive director after 17 years of serving medically fragile, autistic and neuro-typical developing children. 

Golden Key’s operations director Gina Bannevich has been named Terry’s successor. Gina's connection to Golden Key runs deep–– her own son spent his formative years there before moving on to high school. 

When asked if the Golden Key has reached its fullest potential, Gina shared: “Based on the calls we get, no, we are not done growing. There’s such a need in the community for the education and services we provide.”

Future plans for the Golden Key include prioritizing staff development to ensure the team remains uniquely qualified and continuing to adapt to the changing needs of students and their families.

Learn more about the Golden Key at www.goldenkeyschool.com.

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