PISCATAWAY--While discussing Community-based Instruction (CBI) on the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey’s (ESCNJ) Better Together podcast, first year South River Public Schools Superintendent Sylvia Zircher remarked on the organizations value in “teaching you how to fish,” when it comes to operating educational programs.

 Ms. Zircher, a first year ESCNJ Board Member as well, noted how the support and expertise is invaluable and most welcomed

Of particular significance is the support provided for Community-based Instruction (CBI) “a key springboard towards independent living for some special needs students,” said ESCNJ’s CBI Supervisor Raissa Prus.

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The Better Together podcast exploring CBI can be heard by visiting:

https://www.teachertube.com/audio/11117

The CBI curriculum helps students gain hands on work experience, use public transportation, and shop for food and clothing, in addition to meal preparation and accessing community resources like the library and post office, Ms. Prus said.

The job sampling can run the gamut from working at a grocery or department store, to a restaurant or hospital, and recently, to a corporate environment as well, Ms. Prus added.

  Sayreville Public School’s Director of Student Services David Knaster, another Better Together guest, said CBI instruction is “not a field trip” for students.

“Community-based Instruction is tied to New Jersey Department of Education learning standards, and the training students receive is repeated and sustained for a significant period of time,” said Mr. Knaster.

Mr. Knaster underscored the importance of CBI for special needs students.

“Our students are loved and protected from preschool through high school, however they need the skills to independently navigate in the community without adult assistance to the fullest extent possible,” he added.

 Mr. Knaster said 24 Sayreville students have been enrolled in ESCNJ’s  CBI programs and “not one student or parent has asked to have the student removed, which is remarkable,” he said, adding some students have gone on to paid employment in the retail fashion industry, and local department stores.

Ms. Prus also cited “success stories” of students gaining paid employment delivering auto parts and working as a cashier.

Another guest, radiologist Dr. Steven Bier, said it was difficult for his son Samuel, who is on the autism spectrum, to find meaningful employment.

“Our frustration motivated us to take the bull by the horns,” he said.

Ultimately, Dr. Bier began researching employment opportunities, and came across a local popcorn store for sale.

With no experience in the industry, Dr. Bier purchased the store almost three years ago.  Despite some setbacks, the enterprise, named “Popcorn for the People,” has evolved to offer training and employment in popcorn production, sales, and distribution, for approximately 15-20 adults with autism and developmental disabilities, including several from ESCNJ’s CBI program. 

Popcorn for the People, sold at fundraisers, sporting events, and online, is the supplier for Rutgers sporting events, and recently relocated to a larger facility in the Harts Lane complex in East Brunswick.

Dr. Bier points out his product “is not your grandmother’s popcorn,” offering classic and artisanal popcorn flavors ranging from cookies and cream to dark chocolate expresso.

 “Some employees stay with us long term while others move on to jobs requiring managerial experience,” he said.

An additional component of Popcorn for the People is its “safe house” feature.

“If an employee moves to a job and is having trouble mastering a skill, they are welcome to return so we can help them learn whatever is required,” he said.

Ms. Zircher pointed out that all people have strengths and weaknesses, and commended CBI employers for “not making any assumptions, and working with students to help them identify what they are able to do well.”

Ms. Prus said CBI employers are typically willing to work out any issue that comes up on the job. Recalling “a significant behavioral issue” recently, she said:

“I was concerned the employer was going to say the student could not return, however, he said he wanted to keep the student and give him another chance.”

Mr. Knaster said the CBI program help to promote a “culture of acceptance to employers,” with regard to special needs students.

Dr. Bier said the ESCNJ students he employs are exemplary workers.

“The job is really important to them he said, adding potential employers will find “they don’t drink, don’t smoke, come to work on time, and take the job seriously.”

Involvement with CBI “is an opportunity to make a real difference in someone’s lives,” Dr. Bier added.

The largest Educational Services Commission in the state, the ESCNJ provides special education services to school districts statewide, coordinates transportation services for over 10,000 students across the state, and manages a Co-op Pricing System with over 1,000 members, the largest cooperative buying program in New Jersey.