Each year, the New Jersey School Boards Association and ASAH, a New Jersey-based organization which serves the private special education school community, conduct the Innovations in Special Education Awards to honor programs for special education students that are inspired, creative, resourceful and beneficial for students.

This year, seven special education programs were honored at the Innovations in Special Education Awards on May 8.

The ceremony featured an exhibition of the winning programs, when students, teachers, school leaders and parents could view all the programs, and share ideas and strategies for special education.

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney visited the exhibition at the awards program and spoke with the groups. “There is so much we can learn from each other,” he noted. “Sharing is a wonderful way to improve the education of our children. The collaboration and cooperation is great and makes all the difference in the world.”

Acting Commissioner of Education Kimberley Harrington also attended the awards. “These programs are extraordinary, whether it’s a program where students hold luncheons for senior citizens, or a percussion program for the deaf,” she said. “These are incredible opportunities to reach out to our students, recognize them as individuals, and make sure that whatever it is they are dreaming, we can get them there.”

A summary of the Innovations Award-winning programs is below:

21st Century Careers, Benway School, Passaic County

The Benway School’s 21st Century Careers program works to provide new career possibilities for its students. It uses technology ranging from iPads, to a 3D printer, to drones, and provides students with exposure to careers, to achieve that goal.

The Benway School is a private special education school located in Wayne, which serves students in grades 1-12 with emotional, social, cognitive and learning difficulties. The 21st Century Careers program is geared to students in grades 6-12.

In the program, which is spearheaded by Benway’s technology expert, students have enrolled in coding classes; live-chatted with a famed computer programmer; and built EZ-robots, which they programmed to walk, talk, crawl and more. Students learn to operate mini-drones that record video, an area that provides growing opportunities for careers. Once students master using the mini-drones, they graduate to using a Phantom 3 Pro drone outside the school, with the help of an instructor.

Young learners at Benway have also become filmmakers, by acting, filming, editing and doing other tasks to produce a short film, “Escape from Benway,” which is available for viewing on Benway’s YouTube page.

Benway School is expanding some of the learning opportunities to children in the elementary grades. “We strongly believe that the growing enrollment in these classes shows we have sparked interests that have opened new doors for our students, as well as the desire to learn and pursue related careers,” noted the school’s award application.

For more information, contact Matthew Bijas, public information officer.

Coding and Robotics Club, Bright Beginnings Learning Center, Education Services Commission of New Jersey, Middlesex County

As the tools and mediums used by people to communicate information and interact with society change, so too must education, to include instruction in new skills. Technological literacy is a foundation of this new approach to education, and at Bright Beginnings Learning Center, students learn these skills.

Bright Beginnings Learning Center is a specialized public school that provides instruction and services to students ages 3-21 with autism and multiple disabilities.

In 2014, several teachers collaborated to introduce the school to the Hour of Code program. Due to the level of interest and engagement, the program was expanded. A Coding and Robotics Club was introduced in 2015. The school purchased a set of robots, some of which help students learn to code. Staff trainings provide teachers with the tools and materials necessary to incorporate some of the technologies and strategies used in the club into classroom instruction.

Since the inception of the Coding and Robotics Club, students ages 11-20, with varying modes of communication (verbal, iPad, signs/gestures) have used block-based programming to solve problems and puzzles, and explore robotics. The robots have also facilitated opportunities for social development and peer interaction; students greet the robot when it is powered on, maintain eye contact with the robot while communicating and navigate the robot to peers or through the hallway to school destinations.

The program instills skills that students may transfer to the workplace, and prepares students to live with the greatest independence possible.

For more information, contact Wendy Eaton, principal.

Kindness from the Heart, Benedict A. Cucinella Elementary School, Washington Township School District, Morris County

Young students with special needs, in preschool through grade 2, have gained responsibility, compassion and the chance to affect the lives of others, through “Kindness from the Heart,” a program combining service learning and fine motor skills development.

“Often teachers struggle in providing creative and meaningful ways to develop fine motor skills in young children,” noted the school’s award nomination. “For some children, their hands do not seem to work together the way they should. This may lead to such frustration that they may resist activities that require them to coordinate all of the muscles and joints in their hands and fingers. As a result, they do not get to practice these skills correctly or develop the correct muscles. This, in turn may affect the development of higher-level fine motor skills, such as writing…Working to help children develop the best fine motor skills possible at a young age helps to set the stage for success in school, and more so, contributes to them feeling good about themselves.”

The program, which began in September 2015, lets children take part in service projects benefitting the elderly. Students create placemats for residents of a local nursing home, working on their fine motor skills as well as helping the community. The children cut with scissors, trace with stencils, color within boundaries, and finger paint. As a group, the students also discuss seasonal changes and upcoming holidays, to reflect in their artwork. The placemats are delivered bi-monthly to the nursing home, and the children have received “thank-you” notes from seniors, along with the educational benefits.

The teachers who run this program assessed student’s progress in fine motor skills at the beginning and end of the school year, and found that students made gains in those skills. The Kindness from the Heart program contributed to this progress. The nomination essay noted that, “Our students showed significant improvement in their fine motor skills because they were given greater exposure to, and practice in, novel fine motor activities during our service project. The students were motived to practice skills they may have found challenging in less engaging activities.”

For more information, contact Denise A. Scairpon, special education teacher.

LHS Transition Students / Career Exploration, Lawrence High School, Lawrence Township School District, Mercer County

Students in the Lawrence High School “Career Exploration” program participate in activities, events and service learning projects that bring the community into the schools – and the schools into the community.

With a goal of developing students’ workplace readiness skills, and cultivating a sense of entrepreneurship and service among students, the Career Exploration class operates a business that does projects for the township, school and greater community.

The “LHS Transition Services” business has taken on tasks such as installing recycling stickers on recycling bins in all Lawrence Township schools; making and printing personalized napkins for staff members’ special events and board of education events; and making t-shirts for elementary school third-grade students, for staff members’ school events and for community camps.

The Transition Services business has also made personalized candy bar wrappers for events such as schools’ Teacher Appreciation celebrations and monthly candy bar sales; made informational buttons for the LTPS Booster Club and the middle school science fair; printed business cards; created student and staff bookmarks; made and sold dog biscuits; printed school event programs; made window covers for the school emergency management drills and held a “Holiday Mart” fundraiser that donates money to charity.

Students also fill out timesheets, keep track of their work hours, and earn “money” to purchase items in the class store.

These skills will help students as they transition from Lawrence High School to the community, to secondary education and to employment.

For more information, contact David Adam, principal.

Percussion Workshop for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Governor Livingston High School, Berkeley Heights School District, Union County

The Deaf and Hard of Hearing program at Governor Livingston was created in 1977, to create learning and social opportunities for students in a highly-inclusive setting. One hallmark of the program has been the continued effort to evolve opportunities for students to engage in all aspects of culture and the arts. As part of that effort, the “Percussion Workshop” was started in 2013.

The staff worked with a district middle school teacher/percussionist to develop a half-day workshop introducing the students in the Deaf and Hard of Hearing program to percussion. Based on the enthusiastic response from the students, the district created and developed a curriculum and a full-year course specific to those students. The course fulfills the fine arts requirement for the students in the program.

The Percussion Workshop allows students to work under the direction of a district music teacher, with the assistance of educational interpreters, to learn the techniques to engage with various percussion instruments.

Students feel the vibration of the instruments to create and play music. In addition, students learn music history, theory and culture, and begin to understand how to read music.

In 2016, the program held its first concert, allowing students to showcase their skills to parents, school administrators, fellow students and others.

The Percussion Workshop has been an innovative addition to the fabric of Governor Livingston, allowing students to experience the expressive power of music while gaining an overall appreciation for the arts.

For more information, contact Kevin Morra, supervisor of special education.

Senior Citizen Luncheon, Hunterdon Central Regional High School, Hunterdon Central Regional School District, Hunterdon County

Students in Hunterdon Central’s Life Skills class, who range in age from 18-21, learn a variety of life skills by hosting a monthly luncheon for senior citizens.

The students begin planning early for the Saturday luncheon, which is held at a local church. Students choose dishes they will prepare, find recipes and create shopping lists, and call the local bus service, Hunterdon County Link , to arrange transportation to the grocery store. The week of each luncheon, students prepare the dishes; wash, iron and fold tablecloths; and contact the guests to remind them of the upcoming event.

Students also maintain a spreadsheet of senior citizen attendees, and the day of the luncheon, they greet the seniors, manage the buffet meal, and mingle with guests.

In addition to the food each month, students bring a gift for the luncheon attendees, usually in the form of some type of favor the senior citizens can take home. One example is a “hot chocolate cone,” which consisted of everything needed to make a mug of hot chocolate, packaged in transparent wrapping shaped like an ice cream cone.

As students run the luncheons, they develop independence, form relationships, learn many skills, and become a part of their community through service. The feedback from senior citizens has been positive; seniors say they enjoy meeting and forming relationships with the students, and that they are grateful for the efforts of the students.

For more information, contact Kim Dubiel, coordinator of special education.

Sustainability in the Classroom, Archbishop Damiano School, Gloucester County

Students learn best when presented with concrete, hands-on experiential learning activities, at a level that challenges but does not frustrate them. Archibishop Damiano School’s “Sustainability in the Classroom” program, which serves students ages 14-21, does this, while allowing students to master skills aligned with New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards in math, English language arts, social studies and life science.

Archbishop Damiano School, located in Westville Grove, is an approved private school for students with disabilities, ages 3 through 21.

The Sustainability in the Schools program started with a small butterfly garden, which was created to support participation in the Monarch Watch Waystation program. In 2008, the school formalized the pilot program into a horticulture program for middle and high school students and started the first 4-H Club for students with disabilities in New Jersey. The program has expanded to a fully-functioning outdoor garden.

Students experience first-hand the life cycle of flowers and vegetables, grow plants in a hydroponics lab, transplant plants from indoor “grow labs” to outdoor raised beds, and in the process learn math skills, English language arts and more. The students have developed skills to test soil and water acidity levels; they have also experienced the lifecycle of fish, birds and insects and learned about New Jersey ecology.

The program, which continues to grow, has been supported by numerous grants, and the donated services of certified Master Gardeners from Gloucester County Agricultural Extension, of Rutgers University.

For more information, contact Linda McHugh, curriculum coordinator.