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 valuable programs for special needs students.

This year five programs were honored as award winners at a special celebration held on May 21 for Special Education Week. Below are details on the winning entries.

Bulldog Think Tank and STEM Innovation Station Model Classroom 

Memorial Elementary School, Howell Township School District

The Bulldog Think Tank and STEM Innovation Station Model Classroom is a multi-sensory space where children with special needs can model STEM skills for their general education peers. The space is located in the media center in Memorial Elementary School, which serves children in third through fifth grades. In addition to general education classes, the school hosts a majority of the third- through fifth-grade self-contained special needs population of the district.

The room supports STEM learning for the school’s classes, particularly for children with multiple disabilities, autism and cognitive impairments. Students learn 21st century life skills and the skills necessary for possible future STEM careers while engaging in five different centers to work through STEM real-world projects, using both hands-on materials, and digital resources.

The Innovations Stations curriculum topics include Robotics, 3-D Graphic Design, Physics of Fun, Circuits, and Coding. After the special education students become “experts” in each Innovation Station, they invite their general education peers to a special program, “Peer Buddies,” where they share their knowledge. These ongoing inclusive experiences provide students with the opportunity to work collaboratively, build teamwork skills, develop vocabulary, problem-solve, and develop genuine friendships. The STEM room allows additional mainstreaming and peer modeling opportunities to occur; it is noteworthy that the children with special needs serve as the role models who are paired with pupils in the general education program to teach and model STEM skills as the experts.

The model classroom is available to all students, but is a universal-design-inspired STEM space filled with assistive technology such as color-coded dry erase tables and stands, iPads, switch-activated augmentative communication devices, flexible seating including wobble stools, cushions and compression seats.

The initial funding for the program came through a $10,000 grant from the Ocean First Bank, and additional grants from First Energy and the Howell Township Education Foundation. The school’s PTA has also committed to ongoing support of the program by providing additional sources of revenue to meet the yearly purchasing needs of replenishment items and new station materials. The school’s community of parents have also made donations to support the program.

The program’s success has been measureable.  A majority of the special education students are progressing toward or mastering skills related to STEM standards on all grade levels; this has led to more students being placed in inclusive learning environments throughout the year. Another measure of the program’s success is the frequency of use of the space. In addition, the staff has been asked to present program on the topic at Liberty Science Center and at several conferences.

The team that created the program includes Skye Donzelli, computer teacher; Leonora Bradley, occupational therapist; Jennifer Stenard, media specialist; Erin McCabe, speech-language pathologist; Maureen Rubin, board-certified behavior analyst; and Alexandra Zweig, special education teacher.

Fitbit360 Initiative 

Academy 360 Lower School, Spectrum 360

How do you get moving in the right direction on a journey towards a healthier lifestyle, asked the creators of the Fitbit360 Initiative?  In the case of this program, it starts with a single step.

The project was implemented by Gina Catania, school principal;  Megan Durkin, physical education teacher; and Rebecca Casey, school nurse.  It was designed to improve the overall wellness of middle-school students at the Academy360 Lower School, located in Verona, during a three-month period during the 2016-2017 school year.  The idea was to increase physical activity, improve awareness and selection of healthy food choices, and enhance socialization between the students.

The program, which was made possible with a grant from The Drive for Autism Foundation, provided each student, parent and staff member with a Fitbit Charge2, a wireless-enabled wearable activity tracker. The Fitbit helped participants track activity levels and nutritional intake.

Each student, along with their parents and their aide, was assigned to a team which competed weekly with the other teams to see which would log in the most steps. They all had online access to view each team member’s steps, which kept the motivation level high.

Students, staff and parents recorded their steps daily, completed related homework assignments and met regularly for reinforcing group activities, like Zumba class and grocery-store trips.  Evening activities included dietician-led classes for parents that focused on the importance of introducing new foods to picky eaters, the benefits of exercise, involving children in making nutrition choices and having fun while getting fit. Each evening event recognized students with certificates and prizes for the highest number of steps and the most active minutes.  In addition, parents and staff participated in pot-luck dinners where they sampled and exchanged healthy recipes.

The program successfully created a culture of wellness. All participants increased their daily activity levels. Families reported students making healthier food choices, and spending quality time together being active with outings such as hiking. As a result of keeping track of their steps, student math skills improved.

The changes have lasted: Most participants are still wearing their FitBits and are an active part of the online FitBit social communities.

For more information, contact: Gina Catania at [email protected].

NHA Girls Club 

Northern Hills Academy, Sussex County Education Services Commission

Not long after Jennifer Satmaria, an occupational therapist, began working at Northern Hills Academy (NHA), she noticed two things — a dearth of extracurricular activities, and significantly more boys than girls. “Due to smaller class sizes, ages, and classifications, some classes had only one girl,” noted Satmaria.

She decided to tackle both problems by founding the NHA Girls Club, with the goals of having female students build self-esteem, increase social participation, build friendships, participate in leisure activities, develop a sense of responsibility and self-regulation, and foster a sense of pride in being a girl.

The 30-minute monthly club meetings begin with calming yoga poses, then the group transitions to the day’s planned activity, such as a craft. The older girls assist by passing out materials and helping younger students. At the meeting’s end, the girls share individual or group projects, or simply say goodbye to each other. In the past year, the school’s speech language pathologist has been assisting with the club, incorporating speech therapy techniques into the meetings and increasing the use of augmentative and alternative communication devices so that all the club’s girls have a voice.

The girls also help plan and execute a special Mother’s Day Tea each May. During individual occupational therapy sessions, they assist with meal planning, order forms, invitations, cooking desserts, and more. The girls help set up the room the day of the tea and each presents a special message to the mothers. The occasion provides time for the girls and their mothers to celebrate and bond.

The club is funded through the school’s student activities account; and its success can be measured by the feedback from the girls, parents, teachers and paraprofessionals. “My daughter loves Girls Club; please never end it!” wrote one parent.

For more information, contact: Jennifer Satmaria, occupational therapist, at [email protected].

TEAM (Teaching and Educating with Authentic Methods) Program 

Ventnor Elementary School, Ventnor School District

The TEAM program teaches a group of five-to-eight-year old children in a self-contained classroom with the help of puppets and music.  During lessons, the teacher uses a puppet to speak to the children, which helps keep them engaged.

The technique is based on the principle that children with multiple disabilities, including autism, can have an aversion to eye contact and interpersonal communication, and a limited understanding of facial expression and nonverbal language. By using puppetry, the teacher can facilitate communication capabilities that may have otherwise been difficult or non-existent in a classroom setting.

For example, each week students are introduced to a new puppet for each letter in the alphabet, puppets are used at morning meeting to motivate and engage, and model letter sounds and appropriate behavior.  “Mr. N” is the math puppet; that puppet helps teach counting and other skills. Another puppet, “Kind Karen,” is used to teach character education skills such as responsibility, fairness and kindness.

“The children are drawn to technology, animation and rhythmic voices so that engagement with a puppet has fostered dynamic communication within the classroom between teachers and students, as well as peer to peer,” noted the award nomination.

For more information, contact: Gina Scharff, supervisor of special services, at [email protected]

The Caring, Sharing and Pairing Program 

New Road School of Somerset

This program combines charity, shopping and intergenerational contact to create a project that benefits both students and senior citizens.

In January 2016, the school connected with Bob Hurte from Catholic Charities, which has offices in the county. That charity operates a program which connects homebound adults with members of the community who shop for their groceries once a week.

Staff from the New Road School met with Hurte to determine if students from the Structured Learning Experience program might participate in the senior shopping program.

Students shop for seniors once a week at a local Shop-Rite supermarket, adhering to a designated grocery list and paying for groceries at the register. New Road School’s transitional coordinator uses the school vehicle to provide transportation to the store and to deliver the groceries, and accompanies students in the store. Students deliver the groceries to the senior citizen they are assigned to, interact with the homebound adult, and collect the money due for the groceries from the senior.

“For our students, this has been an educational, as well as a charitable experience,” noted the group’s award nomination. “Our students have been able to practice money skills, navigate the grocery store, work as a team, and last but not least, provide socialization to an elder who has limited outside connections.”

The relationships that have formed between the students and the senior citizens have impacted both groups.  One of the students told a school staffer, “I feel so good about myself after visiting our senior friends.”  The elderly clients have expressed similar sentiments, passing along comments to the school such as, “The students from New Road are like grandchildren to me;” “I live for their weekly visits;” and “The groceries are important but the students’ visits and talks with me are the most important.”

For more information, contact:  Michele Rieman at [email protected].