The New Jersey School Boards Association’s annual Innovations in Special Education awards recognize imaginative and pioneering programs that benefit special needs students.

Since its inception in 2002, the competition has drawn wide interest from the state’s special education community. In partnership with ASAH, a non-profit organization that serves private special education schools, NJSBA publicly recognized the winners in May through a virtual ceremony held in conjunction with Special Education Week in New Jersey.

For this issue of School Leader, we interviewed the architects of the four honored programs to provide the larger education community with inspiration to augment or to reinvent their own programs for the betterment of all special needs students.

PROGRAM: College and Careers for ALL

WHERE:   Bergenfield High School, Bergenfield Public Schools, Bergen County

Despite Bergenfield being named one of the nation’s most challenging high schools for eight consecutive years by the Jay Matthews Challenge Index, the oldest ranking system in the country, its annual assessment confirmed that its students with severe disabilities were not prepared for life after high school.

Bergenfield Public Schools’ Lorry Booth, a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and district director special services, wanted to change that. She began to devise a plan that would better equip students for post-secondary success by better transitioning them from school to adulthood, and the IEP for Life Project was born.

In 2016, Bergenfield earned a nearly $1 million New Jersey Department of Education grant, or $333,333 per year over three years, to launch the program, named as one of NJSBA’s 2021 Innovations in Special Education winners.

So far, IEP for Life has served 20 high school-aged students with classifications including multiple or intellectually disabled, autistic, communication or other health impaired, and specific learning or traumatic brain injuries.

The program allows students to travel out of school independently or with a Structured Learning Experience (SLE) coordinator, teacher or paraprofessional, rather than in a traditional group. SLE training prepares staff to better identify safe worksites for students and helps the district reformulate its IEP program.

Unlike a field trip, which is a one-time experience, Bergenfield students take weekly trips to the grocery store, where they learn how to select foods, understand which items are healthy, where to find them according to aisle, and how to pay for them.

“They go into the community every single day and the instruction happens in the real world, where they’re going to be living when they leave us, and so it has much more value and generalization than sitting in a classroom and doing it in paper and pencil,” Booth said.

As part of the state grant, Booth put together an IEP for Life Advisory Committee consisting of the district superintendent and administration, a Seton Hall liaison, Bergen County Special Services administrator, the director of the local business association, a school board member, principals, a student who completed the program, a parent, a Spanish interpreter, the district’s speech and occupational therapists, and members of the child study team and autism program.

The district also worked with The Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities at Rutgers University/Robert Wood Johnson Medical School to apply its Person-Centered Approaches in Schools and Transition (PCAST) program, which permits the students and their parents to individually make their own activity choices, including internship and employment options based on their interests and skills rather than “shift work,” which is traditionally teacher-driven and group-based.

The PCAST philosophy assumes that all people have valuable strengths and gifts that are needed by their communities, which greatly differs from a “system-centered” model that is deficit-based, according to Booth. Now, that belief is a guiding tool for all Bergenfield special education teachers, who are being PCAST trained, resulting in an even greater student impact.

Before the IEP for Life program, students would plan a Thanksgiving meal and discuss it in a classroom. Now, they plan it, buy it and cook it in the kitchen of a pre-fabricated house called the Bear Den, which the district built to provide its students with practical experience. At the den, named after the district’s mascot, the IEP for Life students regularly plan menus, prepare food, and entertain guests such as former Bergenfield Mayor Robert Gallione Jr.

The Bear Den features a family room with sofas, a Smart Board for yoga and cooking demonstrations; a game table; an Apple computer; a handicapped-accessible kitchen, where the students cook breakfast daily and eat together at a table; a laundry area, where the students wash cot sheets for the district’s pre-schoolers; a handicapped-accessible bathroom, where students can learn about grooming and menstruation from a health teacher; and an open-bedroom area with a Plexiglass window, where students organize donated clothing in drawers and practice making the bed.

Prior to the transition house, students would come to the high school at age 14 and remain in a classroom until 21. Now, at age 17 or 18, they move to the Bear Den, and they get to leave campus daily, some taking personal training classes at local gyms, fishing, or wearing a district-purchased FitBit for the students to monitor their walks around the school track.

“Unfortunately, often the developmentally disabled population and autism students don’t engage in leisure activities in their lives after they finish school,” said Booth.

In addition to the noticeable student benefits, Dr. Christopher Tully, Bergenfield superintendent, pointed to the district’s significant savings through the program. Instead of busing the students in need of services to private programs and paying $100,000, plus transportation, the district keeps them in-district and pays $45,000 each. In just four years, the district is sustaining IEP for Life by setting aside funds to cover the personnel costs, supplies, and recreational activities in its school district budget.

“We’re able to provide this opportunity to receive the life skills that these students will need for the remainder of their lives right here in our own community,” said Tully.

Local involvement has been intrinsic as Bergenfield staff set up structured learning-work experiences for all involved students at 11 community sites and four district sites. They also get to experience college classes through partnerships with Seton Hall, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Felician universities. The students worked in an indoor greenhouse, a TV studio and on a flight simulator, and would eat lunch in the cafeteria at Bergen Community College.

The IEP for Life Program has a nostalgic connection to it as well, bringing many of the students full circle to where they started their academic career at Lincoln Elementary’s pre-school program. The district constructed the Bear Den adjacent to it.

“We built this home on the back of that school property,” Tully said. “So, when they look out the windows of their house they can see their elementary school in the distance.”

For more information, contact: Dr. Christopher Tully, superintendent, Bergenfield School District. 

PROGRAM: Salt Brook Buddies

WHERE:  Developmental Learning Center – New Providence (Morris-Union Jointure Commission School District, Union County)

The winning Salt Brook Buddies Program is a joint social skills program between the Morris-Union Jointure Commission’s Developmental Learning Center – New Providence (DLC), and its neighboring Salt Brook Elementary School. The program is designed to foster positive relationships and acceptance of differences among peers, while helping them to learn social and emotional skills and putting them into real-life practice.

The DLC is a receiving public school district that offers programs for students with autism and emotional regulation impairment, while Salt Brook Elementary School is a public elementary school for grades kindergarten to six.

In 2018, Christine Inzano, DLC speech/language specialist, originally developed Salt Brook Buddies as a pen pal arrangement, and continues to expand the opportunities offered to students each year.

Dedicated teachers and administrators from both schools meet to plan inclusive and social learning activities.

Since the program’s founding, activities and events have been added, including a Haunted Boardwalk at Halloween, a Winter Wonderland around the holidays and a Science Fair.

The DLC students eagerly prepare and patiently await the arrival of their Salt Brook “buddies” at each gathering. Interactions among students and their level of comfort with one another has continued to progress with each occasion and the participation level and enjoyment of students from both schools has increased through activities such as Bingo and holiday singalongs.

“It offers students with disabilities who are in a self-contained program the ability to socialize with students, who do not have disabilities,” said Denise Smallacomb, assistant superintendent for Morris-Union Jointure Commission, a receiving district with two schools that serve more than 80 school districts. “It’s the socialization for our students that really counts.”

During 2020, the program grew to incorporate DLC students attending monthly lunch and recess at Salt Brook Elementary School, providing students with a typical cafeteria and recess experience.

DLC-New Providence Principal Andrea Marmolejos said that lunch in a much larger room and the sometimes chaotic atmosphere is good exposure for her students, who are accustomed to much smaller and quieter lunches. Recess on a bigger playground also gives them a chance to practice their conversation skills, or for the non-verbal students, to use their devices with others.

“If our students are to go back to a district school one day, those are important skills to manage,” Marmolejos said of a noisy cafeteria, responding to a recess bell, and learning how to take turns while interacting on a playground.

The interaction with the special education students has been beneficial to the general education students, as well. Jeanne Drexinger, Salt Brook Elementary School principal, selects students to write essays about why they want to be part of the program.

Salt Brook students have developed and demonstrated a deep compassion and understanding of DLC students’ difficulties and differences with communication and social interactions. They engage their DLC friends in age-appropriate activities by modeling, praising and exhibiting genuine enthusiasm for their success.

“They are learning to be more supportive and kind and are learning about disabilities,” Smallacomb said.

Salt Brook students are great school ambassadors and eagerly include DLC students as part of their school. The most exciting experience for the DLC students has been attending field day at Salt Brook Elementary School in the spring of 2019. For some students, this was the first time they received an invitation to a special event outside of their families or the DLC.

“It was not a typical field day,” said Marmolejos, adding that  the Salt Brook students omitted games like the typical tug of war and instead opted for activities that all the children would be able to participate in, including dressing up and taking pictures in a photo booth, playing parachute games and eating together on blankets. This provided the students with the opportunity to socialize in a safe and friendly environment.

Marmolejos said that she feels strongly that mainstream students need connections with children with disabilities to help them develop tolerance, empathy and positive attitudes. That is what has transpired through Salt Brook Buddies.

The added bonus, the school leaders added, is that some of the students between the two schools have built friendships, which has been heartwarming to watch and what education is all about.

For more information, contact: Denise Smallacomb, assistant superintendent, Morris-Union Jointure Commission.

PROGRAM: Beautifying Batsto – A Community Partnership

WHERE:  Vineland High School Life Skills Transition Program,Vineland, (Cumberland County)

While Vineland High School special education teacher David Orlandini and his history students were on a field trip in 2016 visiting Batsto Village, a nationally-recognized historic site at Wharton State Forest, he and a park historian had a casual conversation that sparked the beginning of an effort that has changed the lives of numerous students over the past five years.

The park and the high school’s Life Skills Transition Program embarked on Beautifying Batsto – A Community Partnership, an NJSBA Innovations in Special Education 2021 program winner, which provides students with intellectual and cognitive delays such as autism with further vocational training and real-world work according to their Individualized Education Program.

The Batsto Village gives students useful experienc as it is heavily visited and listed on the state and federal registers of historic places registers of historic places. As a result, the Vineland High School Life Skills Transition Program, which has a working retail shop and cafe on site, now has a greenhouse, expanding the students’ opportunities for potential employment in agriculture and tourism.

The park ranger, Alicia Bjornson, told Orlandini that the park had a need for students to assist in the landscaping and beautification endeavors at Batsto Village. Now, the Life Skills students, ages 18 to 21, visit the park four times a year.

“It’s great that they go to do something that’s going to affect so many other people in the community,” said Theresa Godlewski, director of special services for the Vineland Public School District.

Before the Beautifying Batsto Community Partnership and greenhouse at the school, Godlewski said the students were inadvertently pigeonholed into very specific jobs.

Aside from the obvious hands-on opportunity to cultivate plants in a controlled setting, the program introduces the students to the history of Batsto and its vegetation, specifically herbs that would have been found during the 1700s and 1800s. The students are able to transplant the classroom-grown herbs into the landscape at the historic village, allowing for a vocational and recreational experience, as many students have started their own home gardens.

Additionally, the students also work with site historians and park rangers on overall groundskeeping. This enables the students to recognize plants and materials that are not appropriate for the overall park aesthetics and demonstrate what is needed to remedy the situation. This differentiated activity could be something as simple as picking up litter in public walkways to more complex tasks such as identifying weeds within healthy vegetation and removing unwanted plants. In the end, the hope is for the students to acquire and apply the needed skills to live a healthier lifestyle and create a sustainable community.

Since Vineland is a sprawling community with many farms, farm stands, wholesale greenhouses, landscaping businesses and agri-tourism, the Beautifying Batsto program provides the students with hands-on, real world experience that can be documented and demonstrated so they may be able to transition into a branch of agriculture industry after they leave the district.

Beautifying Batsto allows for students to contribute to the actual running of a state park. Though Vineland is surrounded by farmland, many of the students reside in dense, center city neighborhoods. After school and in the summer, many students are often indoors as their disabilities and their environment may preclude them from enjoying outside activities. This program gives them a chance to spend more quality time outdoors and experience nature’s beauty. The students are introduced to a variety of plants, wildlife and insects which may not be found in a typical neighborhood.

The high school’s Garden and Greenhouse Program serves approximately 25-30 students a year and has been operating since the 2017-2018 school year. Community-based instruction and life skills projects are incorporated into the district’s transition budget.

Although the majority of funding for the Beautifying Batso is from the district coffers, a federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) grant has been applied. When additional supplies or materials are required for the trips, the Garden and Greenhouse Program sponsors a continual community plant sale.

Batsto Village/Wharton State Park have proved to be true district partners in this endeavor, by helping secure a $10,000 grant from Ocean’s First Bank to fund an onsite greenhouse adjacent to the current Life Skills classroom.

This program truly encompasses all aspects of education. It aligns with the curriculum in the area of STEM as it incorporates standards from science, technology and mathematics as well as career and technical education standards. Since this project has become a highlight of the Life Skills Transition program, the concept has flourished and the class now is working with other area facilities such as the N.J. Veterans Home in Vineland and the United Methodist Home in Pitman in collaborative facility beautification efforts.

The true measure of success comes in the pride the students experience for their work, according to school officials. Adding to the pride and validation, the Vineland High School Life Skills Program received the 2019 Burlington County History Recognition Program for Education for the Beautifying Batsto/Wharton State Park Project.

For more information, contact: Theresa Godlewski, director of special services for Vineland Public Schools. Visit the Facebook page.

PROGRAM: Therapeutic T.E.A.M. Day School (Targeting Emotional Aptitude Mindfully)

WHERE:  Westwood Regional School District, Westwood High School, Township of Washington, (Bergen County)

The Westwood Regional School District has taken a team approach to educating the “whole” child and effectively teaching students with significant mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, school refusal, trauma and social/peer issues.

The Therapeutic T.E.A.M. (Targeting Emotional Aptitude Mindfully) Day School at Westwood High School is where students can learn and develop socially, emotionally and academically as they work through their challenges and achieve success in all facets of life.

Initially, the district began serving the students with a wellness center and a clinical counselor. However, there were some who still required more assistance.

So, in 2018, Westwood launched its Therapeutic T.E.A.M. Day School, which is integrated into its high school to better meet the needs of each student. Today, there are about 10 students, ages 14 to 18, who are in various stages of the program. Students must have a documented disability and other pertinent medical evaluations to be enrolled.

“We had a handful of kids that we had no answer for and as much as we tried to provide them with the clinical support that the needed, they just needed more,” said Ray Renshaw, director of special services for the Westwood Regional School District, who worked with his assistant director, Jessica Gluck, to develop the program. “We’ve put a lot of effort in.”

Even though the T.E.A.M. Day School exists as a self-contained center, it still offers participating students the flexibility to grow. As students improve, they may chose to take an elective or other courses in the general high school setting, with the day school serving as their home base. In addition to offering the services of licensed mental health clinicians, the day school also has a full-time special education teacher for the subjects of English/language arts, history, social studies and science; dual-certified math and special ed teachers; and a health/physical education teacher, who delivers non-traditional activities such as yoga and mindfulness.

The T.E.A.M. Day School supplies the students with an intentionally modified schedule beginning at 9 a.m., an hour after the high school day starts, and it ends an hour earlier at 2:15 p.m.

Three times a year the students are administered the SCARED assessment (Screen for Child Anxiety Related Disorders) across four domains: panic/somatic, separation anxiety, generalized anxiety and school phobia. The center also uses a daily 1-5 anxiety rating scale to determine how each day will be designed with coursework and possible individual counseling sessions.

“Spending time in the T.E.A.M. Day program daily, it is remarkable to see the growth and progress our students are making socially, emotionally, and academically in this learning environment. They are coming to school daily, completing all of their assignments, and using learned coping strategies to work through challenging times,” said Gluck.

The program’s physical environment contributes to making the school day successful. The classroom color scheme is pale blue and was chosen based on extensive research identifying the tone to reduce anxiety and promote calmness. The rooms are outfitted with flexible seating arrangements, spacious workstations, comfortable couches, bean bag chairs, coffee tables and positive imagery on the walls.

In addition to seeing significant improvement in student attendance, work completion and report card grades, the district also has saved money in legal fees, transportation, and out-of-district tuition by educating its students in the less restrictive environment within their home school.

Renshaw used an example of one student who had accrued 120 absences in his first two years of high school. But, after being in the day school program, the student made such progress that by junior year he only missed nine days; and by senior year, just six.

Small class sizes; home visits to reduce school refusal and increase attendance; social skills groups; group and family counseling services; daily check-ins and ongoing behavioral data analysis; and weekly staff meetings to discuss each student’s progress are all part of the program’s structure.

“Progress monitoring is very important to make sure we manage what our students need,” Renshaw added.

Mindfulness approaches are integrated into day school student instruction including art therapy and visits from a therapy dog a few times a month. Students are offered the chance to engage in an internship or volunteer with a community organization such as the district’s preschool program. They have taken field trips to local stores and food establishments to help them target their social anxiety and interact with the public, providing them with even more real-life experiences for emotional and social progress and prepping them for a future to become active members of society.

For more information, contact:Ray Renshaw, Westwood Regional School District director of special services. Get program information.

Rosa Cirianni is a contributing editor to School Leader magazine.