Each year, the New Jersey School Boards Association, along with ASAH, an organization which serves private special education schools, conducts the “Innovations in Special Education” awards program to recognize imaginative and effective programs for special needs students.

This year, programs from four schools were honored at an event held during Special Education Week. The four schools included the Hazlet Middle School; the Warren County Special Services School District; the Gramon Family of Schools and the New Road School of Ocean County.

The winners not only provide a window into the creative programming that New Jersey’s special education students receive; they also serve as a model for other districts interested in such programs. Below are details on the winning programs:

Hazlet Middle School: Academic and Career Exploration Program Age Group Served:

Grades 7-8; Number of Students: 11

Hazlet Middle School: Academic and Career Exploration Program

The Academic and Career Exploration program is a collaboration between the Hazlet Township public schools and the New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife. Through a semester-long class, Academic and Career Exploration Students learn real-world skills applicable to independent living, career exploration, vocational training, social interaction and community building. Those students then can apply these skills during a three-day, two-night excursion to Sedge Island, located at the southern end of Island Beach State Park. Sedge Island (actually a small group of islands in Barnegat Bay) is one of the most ecologically diverse and pristine marine habitats on the east coast.

The New Jersey Department of Fish and Wildlife (NJDFW) conducts the Sedge Islands Environmental Workshop, which is not specifically designed for special needs students. The staff at NJDFW worked with the Hazlet staff to modify the program, and accommodate students’ unique needs.

In preparation for and during their trip to Sedge Island, where the group stays in a renovated duck-hunting lodge, students are expected to shop for groceries, prepare meals, manage their personal belongings, clean their rooms and care for common areas, wash and put away dishes, and interact socially. While there, they are exposed to outdoor experiences, such as kayaking, fishing, clamming and more.

“The first night typically we eat spaghetti and meatballs,” explained Tom Toohey, Hazlet’s director of special services. “The second night, we have hamburgers and hot dogs, but we also eat foods we’ve foraged and caught — fish, clams, and some edible plants.”

For some students, it is the first experience they have ever had with a sleepover, according to Toohey, and for the five years the program has been in operation, they have all embraced the experience. “There is always the question: Can they do it? Without exception, they have risen to the occasion,” said Toohey.

One requirement that he thinks is key to the success of the Sedge Island experience: Students are required to turn over their cell phones and devices, and to have a “tech-free” experience. “I keep the parents at home updated throughout our stay, so they are fully informed,” he said.

Toohey credits Amy Gill, special education teacher; Christine Orrico, behavioralist; and Jackie Hafner, supervisor of special services, with the development of the program.

For more information:Tom Toohey, Hazlet director of special services.

Warren County Special Services School District: The H.I.L.L.S. House

Age Group Served: Three to 21 years; Number of Students:  More than 40

Warren County Special Services School District: The H.I.L.L.S. House

The Helping Individuals Learn Life Skills (H.I.L.L.S.) House program is located in a house on the campus of Centenary University, and provides an opportunity for students with special needs to foster independence and build self-esteem. The house has been configured to meet the needs of the students, with a renovated prep kitchen with extra counter space to accommodate large group cooking lessons, a dining room with an expanded table for social skills luncheons and laundry facilities to enhance skill sets.
Students learn home maintenance skills, including painting to cleaning; hospitality skills, including laundry, making beds, and hosting an event; horticulture skills, including gardening; and holiday preparation skills, including planning, cooking, and serving. Students learn these skills in a real home environment.

The success of the H.I.L.L.S. House is measured in skills mastered. For example, one student was learning to make a bed. At first, it took him 45 minutes with a staff member modeling on another bed. The student came every other week and after many practices, was able to make the bed in three minutes.

The students who spend time at the H.I.L.L.S House also interact extensively with community members. The local police department has visited to explain in detail what happens in a 911 phone call. For the local Shop Rite store, the students pick up the cashier’s smocks, and wash and fold them before returning them to the store. Shop Rite supplies the laundry detergent for the house. Several community groups visit the house, including a group of seeing eye puppies in training. Education majors from Centenary University visit the house to observe and participate in activities. The house is also made available, for a fee, to students from other school districts, in addition to the Warren County Special Services School District.

Janet Cunningham, the house coordinator, explains that students sometimes sign a wall in the house, and leave a comment. One student’s comment speaks volumes: “I love coming to HILLS House. We learn lots of new things.”

For more information:Janet Cunningham, house coordinator, Warren County Special Services School District.

Gramon Family of Schools: Knight Court

Age Group Served: 14 – 21 years; Number of Students: 85

Gramon Family of Schools: Knight Court

The school’s sports program provides the students at the Gramon Family of Schools in Fairfield the opportunity to take part in a wide variety of sports and activities that have been modified to meet their needs.

For example, the basketball program has games every Friday afternoon from December through February. Contests are between students on different intramural squads, called the “Yellow Knights,” and the “Green Nights.” In addition to basketball, students may also participate in cheerleading, a drum line, a pom-pom squad, baton twirling, and scorekeeping.

Physical therapists pair with gym teachers to assess the abilities of students and to find ways they can successfully participate in events. For example, some students are capable of participating independently in a basketball game, while others require the assistance of instructional paraprofessionals to facilitate game play. The baton twirlers and cheerleaders comprise the pom-pom squad; they are taught routines based on specific music and movements, and the routines are performed at halftime.

Classes that attend the games often make signs and participate in various cheers and applause modeled throughout the game. “One of the obstacles that children with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) have is that it can be difficult for them to be in large crowds with a lot of noise,” said Michael Farrelly, Gramon Family of Schools principal. However, according to Farrelly, the cheers have simple rhythmic patterns that are easily followed, and the noise and enthusiasm of the crowd helps desensitize students to loud environments and over-stimulation.

Parents are invited to cheer on their children and even partake in some traditions such as halftime contests for prizes or senior day where moms receive a bouquet of flowers from the graduating seniors. The entire staff, including teachers, physical, speech and occupational therapists, assist students in the activities. “In addition, alumni students come back and mentor the students in the activities they participated in,” noted Farrelly.

For more information:Michael Farrelly, principal, New Beginnings School.

New Road School of Ocean County: Operation Honor Our Heroes

Age Group Served: 18 – 21 years; Number of Students: 32

New Road School of Ocean County: Operation Honor Our Heroes

Although special education students often experience isolation and disconnection from their communities, students at the Lakewood-based New Road School gain a sense of community engagement through a service learning curriculum and course that has been implemented in the school’s Pathways transitional program.

After learning of a community of homeless individuals living in a “Tent City” a few miles from the school, the students voted in March 2017 to make weekly bag lunches for the 30 individuals living there. In a culinary class, the students learned to plan the meals and determine food quantities.

During the 2017-2018 school year, the students learned about the difficulties that many U.S. military veterans face. As a result, the service learning class created “Operation Honor Our Heroes.”

The students partnered with another service learning club in Atlantic County and started by making full-course meals for homeless veterans living in transitional housing in Atlantic City. To date, they have made about 1000 meals. They also have collected household essentials for veterans, such as toiletries and laundry detergent, have made no-sew blankets for the Veterans Hospital, and have also made cookies and brownies for Lakewood’s police and fire departments.

In January 2019, the class hosted a luncheon for local veterans, who then shared their stories of service with the group. A few months later, the class made 13 large care package boxes for troops serving overseas, engaging the entire school in the collection of items, and selling pretzels to fund the postage to send the packages.

Administrators say New Road students have found that by providing services to others, their own self-esteem has improved, and they have learned skills that can help them succeed in the workforce and in life.

For more information:Dr. Carol Ferguson, curriculum coordinator, New Road School of Ocean County.

The Innovations in Special Education programs honored were chosen from a pool of 48 applications by a panel of judges that included Irene LeFebvre, chair of NJSBA’s Special Education Committee, and member of NJSBA’s Board of Directors; Alexis Ziegler, Acting 619 Coordinator, Office of Special Education, New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE); Elaine Lerner, coordinator (retired) NJDOE Office of Special Education; and Mary Ann Friedman, NJSBA field service representative.

Janet Bamford is manager of communications and publications for NJSBA.