One program, in Bergenfield, brings special needs students into the kitchen, teaching life skills and encouraging social interaction as they stir pudding or prepare pizza and salad.

Another program uses robotics as a teaching tool, in the Washington Township School District in Morris County. And a third, in Hamilton, unites disabled and mainstream students to work on a community service project.

These three special education programs, plus six more from throughout New Jersey, were recognized in May with the Innovations in Special Education Awards, an honor spotlighting some of the state’s most creative efforts to educate special needs students.

Presented by the New Jersey School Boards Association and ASAH, a nonprofit organization of schools and agencies for children with disabilities, the 14th annual Innovations in Special Education Awards were selected by the judges from among 47 entries. Awards were presented at a celebration in May, at the Westin Princeton at Forrestal Village.

The programs honored with the 2014 Innovations in Special Education Awards are as follows:

Ability Awareness Collaboration

Wall Township High School, Wall Township School District

Contact:Carol Duffy

This program creatively raises awareness about disabilities by partnering students from the Wall High School Peer Leaders with students from the Ladacin-Schroth School, a private school for disabled students. The purpose is threefold: The Schroth students have the opportunity to socialize with students from their sending school districts; the Wall students, some of whom have disabilities, develop further awareness and learn to interact with people of different abilities; and the Schroth students benefit from community-based instruction.

Begun in 2011, the program arranges for students from the two schools to meet for a weekly peer “buddy” program, and an end-of-year luncheon. On their first visit last year, students introduced themselves, some using communication devices, and learned that although they may not communicate in the same way, they love similar things like music and movies.

The students toured each other’s schools, and learned about each other’s sports and proms. On one visit, the Wall students heard from the mother of a Schroth student, who came with the group, and explained about how difficult it is even to do a simple thing such as find handicapped parking when needed. Students are now considering advocacy measures to help solve that problem.

The program brings together students from a district school and a private school, to raise disability awareness.

Bankbridge Buddies

Bankbridge Elementary School, Gloucester County Special Services School District

Contact:Theresa Pramov

This program teaches elementary students social skills, as well as the value of “giving back,” by reaching out to the community to serve residents of a nursing home.

Started in 2007, the program involves fourth- through sixth-grade students at Bankbridge Elementary School, in Gloucester County, who have multiple and behavioral disabilities. The children every month visit with residents of a nursing home, who require residential care. The current population of the nursing home includes residents who are younger and more high-functioning than were some residents of the past. They miss one-on-one interaction with the community, especially children.

The Bankbridge Buddies visit with residents for one hour per month, and work together on crafts, coloring or games. The students are encouraged to initiate conversation and reinforce social skills they have learned during their weekly social skills group. The students have learned to embrace the differences and personalities of the residents. Many friendships developed out of the pairings, such as two students with Asperger’s, who learned how to play a braille version of the card game “Uno” with a blind 50-year-old nursing home resident.

The cost of the program, which includes transportation to the nursing home, is paid for by the Clinical Services Department, and the school parent association helps finance a snack and a “Meet and Greet” visit by nursing home residents to the school. Students’ families are involved in this as well, as each student is allowed to invite a family member to meet the resident their child has befriended.

Cooking Up Confidence

Bergenfield High School, Bergenfield Public School District

Contact:Dr. Arthur Freiman

The Bergenfield Public School District, working with Bergen County Special Services, operates the Tri-Valley Academy for students with autism. Tri-Valley Academy’s mission is to provide comprehensive education services for students with autism, from ages K-21. One way is through “Cooking up Confidence.”

Students at all grade levels take part in daily cooking activities as a way to develop knowledge and practice skills that will help contribute to the goal of independent living. The cooking is age-appropriate, ranging from making chocolate pudding – in first grade – to preparing homemade pizza and salad for high school students. The kitchen is outfitted with a microwave and toaster oven donated by teachers. A refrigerator and various supplies and materials are provided by the Bergenfield School District.

Perhaps few skills are more “core” to survival than cooking, yet here, cooking is also used as an innovative approach to facilitating social interaction and communication skills, developing abstract concepts, learning sequencing skills, following instruction and exploring cause and effect.

Individual and small group instruction; and task analysis is used to isolate step-by-step skills. Using smaller steps allows students to practice until they are able to master one skill at a time. Gradually, as capabilities expand, students prepare more complicated recipes. Students even recently developed their own cookbook, featuring recipes they completed.

Support has also been provided by the Bergenfield Elks Lodge 1477 and the Dumont Elks Lodge 2593.

Friday’s Friends

Colonia Middle School, Woodbridge School District

Contact:Cynthia Lagunovich

Over the past few years, the special education population of Colonia Middle School has grown significantly, to the point that special needs students currently total about 18 percent of the school population.

Realizing in 2011 that the special needs students were not fully immersed in the school culture, Language Arts teacher Laura Skiba and her eighth-grade class developed an activity to share with a special needs class for an upcoming holiday. The result was so successful, it led to “Friday’s Friends.”

Working with self-contained classroom teachers who instruct CMS, autistic and multiply disabled children, special needs and regular education students are paired up as buddies. Each week, the buddies spend about 30 minutes together on various activities. Students help buddies in reading, writing, science and math activities. Data collected by teachers shows that special needs students have increased verbal skills, and are building vocabulary, because of it.

“Friday’s Friends” has another benefit. Special needs students feel more willing to participate in schoolwide activities, and are less intimidated by the general population. The regular education students benefit as well, by learning to relate to different types of children, and to practice peer leadership and mentoring.

The program has become a staple at the school, and well-known in the community. The mayor of Woodbridge regularly takes part in activities, and has helped fund activities and field trips. The school community also helps raise funds for Friday’s Friends, and the PTO awards a grant each year for supplies and donates to the Evening Under the Stars, a prom for all special needs students in the district, organized by Colonia Middle School faculty.

The Garden Project

Whippany Park High School, Hanover Park Regional High School District

Contact:Maria Carrell

A vegetable and flower garden is the setting for this program, in which students in grades 9-12 with multiple disabilities learn fine and gross motor skills, and a variety of subjects, by working in a garden.

Students use information on seed packets to predict when a seed will germinate, thus learning math. They study the plant life cycle in science, and practice language arts skills by writing a description of the growing plants. They learn life skills such as cooking with herbs. Students in the developmental program also have the opportunity to socialize with the high school’s Peer Buddies, who assist with the program. Finally, students learn about healthier eating habits, and get exercise from their work in the garden.

The program, which began in the spring of 2012, has greatly increased students’ ability to comprehend and retain knowledge. It has grown to include field trips to sites such as Frelinghuysen Arboretum, Rutgers Gardens and County College of Morris. All in all, the benefits harvested by the school, and the students, have been numerous.

Hornet Hive Community Project

Hamilton High School West, Hamilton Township School District

Contact:Isabelle Sutton

The Hornet Hive Community Project is more than a program for special-needs students. It is an altruistic effort helping the Hamilton community.

Each year, the Multiple Disabilities Life Skills Program at Hamilton High School West chooses a social organization to partner with, to “give back” to the community. Disabled students then work alongside mainstream students to do so.

Examples of the projects include decorating a holiday tree in the library, with ornaments the students made. Each ornament identified an item needed by the Grafton House staff, or for needy families and children in the community, through Angel’s Wings, a local nonprofit that serves children. The Hornet Hive also worked on a project called Cell Phones for Soldiers/Quilt of Valor, collecting phones to donate to deployed soldiers, and making a quilt for a local soldier. Finally, the families of deployed soldiers were recipients of items collected through Giving Tree for Tender Hearts, a local group that collects various items for needy families.

Participating students develop a lifelong understanding of the importance of community involvement, and the concept of giving their time. At the same time, disabled and mainstream students learn valuable skills from working together.

The Respite Program

The Midland School, North Branch

Contact:Barbara S. Barkan

This program allows disabled students, age 10-21, to experience an ordinary childhood pleasure that they may have seen siblings do for years, but which they were never able to try: A sleepover with friends.

For many disabled children this is their first chance at a sleepover. For their parents, it is a welcome respite.

The program was started after a Midland School parent in 1982 mentioned to the school’s educational director that the parent and child had never been separated, even for one night, because of the child’s needs. This is a chance to address that.

The students arrive on Fridays with their suitcases, and stay until 5 p.m. Saturday, enjoying activities such as movies, a trip to the mall or a fair. Counselors and students make their beds, plan meals, go food shopping and cook. They also have time to hang out with friends. In the process, the students practice social skills, learn and use independent living skills, improve self-confidence and self-esteem, and have fun.

For parents of special needs children, the Respite Program is a chance to spend time with each other, attend a special event or give some extra time and attention to one of their other children. Because the sleepover takes place in the Midland School’s independent living apartment, students feel they are in a familiar environment, with adults who know and understand them. The cost is covered through the Midland Foundation, and the Foundation seeks grants from sponsors. Each parent also pays $100.

Robo Kids

Benedict A. Cucinella School, Washington Township School District, Morris County

Contact:Amanda Miranda

This hands-on program is a way to engage autistic students’ creative thinking, communication skills, scientific thinking and problem-solving abilities by working with robotics.

At the same time, it enhances learning in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). Students are engaged in basic computer programming, keyboarding and robot construction.

Robo Kids engages preschool and school-age special needs students in a motivating learning experience, by inviting them to build robotic projects such as cars that follow light or animals that can make sound. The students work like engineers, exploring gears, levers, motors, sensors and programming loops. They become story tellers, too, by creating robots that move in response to the environment.

For students who have difficulty in social interactions, the robots encourage students to participate in social interaction and negotiations. Robots allow for a young child’s imagination to flourish.

Begun in 2012, the program has recently received funding from a grant from the New Jersey Association of Educational Technology, the Parent Teacher Organization, and local businesses.

The Workshop Training Program

Freehold Township High School, Freehold Regional High School District

Contact:Renee Davis

This program gives students with disabilities the chance to become immersed in everyday community-based experiences, and learn both “hard” and “soft” skills as they transition into the workplace and life.

Fifth-, sixth- and seventh-year students are interns, placed in one of a variety of employment partnerships at sites such as large retail stores, grocery stores and restaurants. Along with learning job skills, the students are also taught every day skills.

Students go on excursions to places such as the Motor Vehicle Commission, where they wait in line to obtain a non-driver state identification. They work out at local fitness centers, satisfying physical education requirements, and learning the skill of managing themselves in a public locker room and facility.

The program, begun in 2011, also includes assessment of the students&rs employability skills such as work habits/attitudes, cognitive skills and performance. The program is funded locally and through a grant from the Monmouth County Division of Workforce Development. The main objective is for students with disabilities to attain and maintain employment at the highest level possible.

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