Pick Up the Pieces: Work Based Learning at J.P. Stevens High School

Credits: Mallory Kilroy
Credits: Mallory Kilroy
Credits: Mallory Kilroy
Credits: Mallory Kilroy

EDISON, NJ - Kate Rosenberg, who has been named as the Edison Township School District's Teacher of the Year, explains the purpose of Providing Instruction and Experience in Community and Everyday Studies, better  knoiwn as Project Pieces, as “a place where we teach kids how to function in the every day world, how to talk to people, how to ask for help, ride public transportation, how to navigate the community, how to keep a household, and how to live as independently as possible.” The 19 students enrolled currently in this unique program are students from the ages of 14-21 who have multiple disabilities. The program requires specialized instruction in functional life skills as well as following an academic curriculum that is aligned with the Core Content Curriculum Standards. Instruction is provided through classroom teaching, community based experiences, and vocational training.

Rosenberg, who was formerly a teacher in the Read 180 program, was approached by Chris Conklin, the Assistant Superintendent of Special Education, to initiate a program designed to prepare special needs students for life beyond high school. “I was given a cash register and a classroom and told to create a program,” Rosenberg laughs, which is exactly what she and partner, Marissa Freeman have done with the support of Holly Clark, the district transitional coordinator.

The first challenge that this team faced was creating an appropriate space to begin vocational training. “We were given a classroom,” Rosenberg explains, “and went to Ikea to buy shelves and boxes. Other items were donated by Etnies, such as shoes to set up our retail store, and more shelves from the Discount Shelving Warehouse. The classroom was set up with a simulated grocery store, a Staples, and a Marshalls. Students practice skills such as stocking shelves and creating enticing displays, and locating items for customers.”

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Once the students became comfortable in their work related tasks, Rosenberg and Freeman began to contact local businesses to place students from Project Pieces at JPS as well as students from the LLD class at Edison High School. So far students have been placed at Pizza Hut on Route 1, Marshalls and Staples in Iselin, Barnes and Noble at Menlo Park Mall, Shop Rite of Woodbridge, the YMCA on Oak Tree Road, and the Edison Public Library. Students are transported by bus to their worksites, where they are accompanied by para-professionals from JPS. Students who work in the retail sites assist customers, thus developing their communications skills and restock shelves. At the YMCA students in the program work in the area of child care.

Working in the community now helps prepare these learners for an independent future. Both Freeman and Rosenberg noted that the state requires two years of employment in order to be considered for sheltered workshop opportunities, which become available to young adults at the age of 23. “There is a two year gap between the ages of 21, when students age out of high school and 23 when they become eligible for sheltered workshops, and we worry about what will happen to our students when they complete their high school experience.”

Aside from their work experience outside of J.P. Stevens High School, the students involved in Project Pieces have responsibilities in the school. For example, they run a photo-copying business, laminate materials for teachers in the building, create attractive bulletin boards, and shred materials sent from the district's Central Office. Students also work in the athletic training room where they fill water bottles, make sure ice is on hand for athletes, and wash the towels that are used.

Rosenberg noted, “We were very active during the recent PARCC testing. Our students sharpened 45,000 pencils for testing and collated packets of information for the teachers.”

Another important facet of the Project Pieces program is Hawk Mart, the school store that the class runs daily during school lunches. Students can purchase a variety of school supplies, greeting cards, and school tee and sweatshirts. A heat transfer machine is available for students to create tee shirts of any design ordered by a wide range of customers. Items can be ordered by the general public by visiting the Project Pieces website at

Rosenberg credited the success of the program to the dedication of the para-professional staff, which includes Ellen Utrecht, Patricia Shirley, Mallory Kilroy, Debbie Findlay, and Marissa Ship, who serve as academic assistants in the morning and job coaches in the afternoon. Rosenberg added, “We could not do all that we do without the support of Principal Gail Pawlikowski and Special Education Supervisor Cathy Swayze.”

The academic program that the students engage in mirrors what they are learning in terms of their job skills. For example, the Math curriculum is developed around funtional skills, such as learning how to handle money, food measurement, doses of medication, banking skills, understanding time and calendar funtions, and using a calculator. Classes in Language Arts are centered around skills such as completing job applications as well as speaking skills to use with the public. Students also learn about the importance of hygiene and visit a dollar store to purchase personal products to use for themselves. Visits to local restaurants where students learn how to order from a menu and figure out their bills are a popular addition to the program.

Rosenberg, who is very modest about being named Teacher of the Year, credits the success of Project Pieces to “the paras, the teachers, and the community who move the program forward.” Next year Rosenberg and Freeman anticipate that their program will be growing to over 40 students. This dynamic team of teachers is committed to raising the bar for their learners by engaging more local businesses to invite their students to work in their businesses and increasing the expectations on what the students can handle both in school and in the greater community. 

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