Setting Differences Aside with an Extraordinary Partnership


SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ  - The South Plainfield Middle School and The Lakeview School in Edison will hold an assembly called “With Differences Aside” on February 3, 2017. The South Plainfield 7th and 8th grade students will be able to experience what it’s like to be disabled and learn how to look past disabilities to see the person within.  They will interact with the children of Lakeview and will participate in a training, which encourages communication without using their speech.  They will play with toys while using adapted equipment and move using a wheelchair, crutches or a walker.  The experience will also demonstrate how technology can enhance a student’s independence. 

With Differences Aside began in the Fall of 2003 to provide Lakeview students with special needs the opportunity to interact with their non-disabled peers in the community,” said Lakeview School Supervisor of Education and Testing Judi Alfano, who will be presenting the program on February 3rd. “Through this training, the students without disabilities have an opportunity to see how technology and adapted equipment helps to ‘level the playing field’ for students with disabilities.  A child’s curiosity moves them to ask questions, and through this program, they have the opportunity to not only ask the questions, but to experience the answers as well.  When this occurs, we have found that the differences which people see between people with and without disabilities are put aside, and the person is recognized.” 

The two schools partnered last year in efforts to embrace one another’s differences and offer mutual support.  Over the past year, the students have visited each other’s schools.  The South Plainfield Middle School MakerSpace Technology Program and the Students Doing Good Service Program have been extremely active in the partnership. 

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“I believe that South Plainfield students can learn a lot from the Lakeview Students,” South Plainfield student Theresa Lanzetta said. “For instance, reminding them everyone is different, even through their imperfections, they’re perfect. Meeting the wonderful students, and the staff at Lakeview was an honor, an amazing opportunity.” 

“The visit to Lakeview was a really eye-opening experience that I loved,” said Rena Li, South Plainfield student. “I learned that most of the kids think how we think, they just have difficulty expressing their thoughts.” 

“I learned that even if children have disabilities, they still are like every child,” said Sam Cheng, South Plainfield Middle School student. “Whatever we want like clothes or phones, they also want that too.” 

“The partnership breaks down barriers between disabled and non-disabled students,” said Lynn Sikorski, former principal of The Lakeview School. Sikorski, who retired last year, fully supported the partnership between schools adding, “The South Plainfield students gain an understanding of the needs of students with multiple disabilities as well and see how they are more alike than different.  I think the partnership between schools is a wonderful idea.” 

Former Middle School Principal Kevin Hajduk, who is currently the principal of Kennedy Elementary School was also an integral part of forming the partnership last year. Hajduk said, “I was looking into partnering with area schools to help increase the awareness of our outstanding programs at the Middle School.  I first learned about Lakeview through Patti Feeney, the parent of one of our Middle School students.  Lakeview is a wonderful place where learning is valued just as much, if not more, than the South Plainfield Middle School.” 

The Lakeview School, a program of the New Jersey Institute for Disabilities in Edison, NJ is a place of learning and discovery for many children with multiple disabilities. It is one of the largest day programs for children with disabilities in the country with 160 students enrolled ages 3 to 21 years old from 12 New Jersey counties. 

“My daughter Brianna attends the Lakeview School and has made enormous progress over the years,” said Patricia Feeney.  “Brianna has Pallister Killian Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disorder.  Children like her, who are nonverbal, learn to communicate with switch-operated toys and devices.  Since my son was in the MakerSpace technology program at the Middle School, I thought it would be wonderful if they could convert toys for the Lakeview students.  Little did I know that the relationship between the schools would grow as it has. Next Friday Brianna’s class will visit her big brother’s school for the With Differences Aside assembly, which will be an amazing experience for the students and staff of both schools.”

“There are two types of switches,” said Diane Ackerman who is Brianna’s Special Education Teacher at the Lakeview School. “One type of switch plugs into toys or the computer and the other is used as a basic voice output device to relay a message. They both help the students learn to communicate by learning cause and effect. When they touch a switch, something is activated or said. It also gives the students an opportunity to socially engage with staff and peers.” 

“We immediately went to work to find ways to collect toys and convert them using switches that Lakeview students could use,” added Teacher Carolyn White, who heads up the MakerSpace Program at the South Plainfield Middle School.  “We even took soldering classes to learn how to attach switches to the batteries of the toys.”

“MakerSpace is a Middle School Program designed to encourage students to collaborate on projects focusing on science, technology, engineering, art and math,” said Teacher Christine Brandenburg, who also leads the program.  

“We also believe that the Lakeview students will impact the Middle School students even more then making switch operated toys,” said Brandenburg and White. “As educators and as parents, we often worry about how technology is affecting our children’s communication skills. We want to ensure that our students have empathy for others. We see this project as the perfect marriage of technology and social consciousness. Hopefully, the MakerSpace students involved will gain an understanding of people with challenges while learning some new technology skills.” 

As the student’s progress through the early grades at Lakeview and the children learn the essential lesson of cause and effect, many students are able to communicate using computers that are mounted on their wheelchairs. 

“It is a surreal experience to be in the classrooms of the older students at Lakeview and have conversations with them with the help of their computers,” said Feeney. “Students at 15-years-old, who are nonverbal like my daughter Brianna, can hit a button on the computer or in the headrest of their wheelchairs and talk through the computer. This eliminates the frustration of the children who just want to be understood. They laugh with each other, tell jokes and participate in class.” 

“Technology gives back to our students what the disability took away,” said Alfano, “The students are able to express themselves and be heard and that is extraordinary.” 

“The students at Lakeview just want to be accepted for who they are, just like we all do,” said Sikorski. “They want interaction with others and don’t want people to think that their disabilities define them. They are ‘people first’ with the same interests, feelings and hopes as non-disabled individuals.” 

In March of 2016, a group of students and staff from South Plainfield Middle School visited the Lakeview School to meet the students they would be providing the toys for and to begin building friendships with their disabled peers. The MakerSpace students were joined by the Middle School’s Students Doing Good Program. 

“Students are nominated for the Students Doing Good program by Middle School Staff, who choose students who are observed inconveniencing themselves for others,” said Middle School Student Assistance Counselor Joretta Strayhorn, who leads the Students Doing Good Program. “The students are interviewed by members of the Middle School Safety Team. Upon the conclusion of the interviews, the new inductees are determined. The students are involved in various activities such as Kean University Leadership Day, South Plainfield Middle school leadership week and working with students with special needs in other districts.” 

South Plainfield student Julianne Ferraro commented after the trip to Lakeview, “When I grow up, I really want to work with special needs children. The trip to Lakeview School was a great experience for me. I hope I can go back to Lakeview again.” 

“It was incredible for me to see my son and the other Middle School students paired in the classroom with Lakeview students their own age,” said Feeney. “The Lakeview students expressed their opinions, answered questions and worked on an art project side-by-side with their new South Plainfield friends.” 

One Lakeview student said with the help of his computer, “I want to have more friends.” 

Another Lakeview student added, “I love music and want to be a DJ!” 

“The program in place like the one between South Plainfield and Lakeview will have long term positive impact for our students,” said Sikorski. “Change comes with education and knowledge. Providing the South Plainfield students with these shared experiences and educating them in the needs of our students will be the impetus for changes that will improve the quality of life for our students. Raising awareness is key and integrated experiences such as these help all individuals learn and share the stage for change.” 

Hajduk added, “Both schools will benefit because they will learn from each other and value the fact that although they are educated in different ways, both schools have high expectations for learning and have an obvious respect for students with disabilities.” 

“Even on my bad days, I feel that I take those days for granted,” said South Plainfield student Theresa Lanzetta. “What I learned during my visit to Lakeview is that some people have it worse. I look up to the kids I met during my visit. To me, they are so strong to be fighting their daily obstacles while smiling.” 

“Often people don't meet many children with disabilities.  The disabilities can be unfamiliar or misunderstood,” added Ackerman. “Visiting our school can be a lifelong learning experience. It gives students the opportunity to see our students participate in ‘typical’ activities such as gym and art. They might buy a school lunch or feel sick and go to the nurses’ office, just like they do. They have expectations and goals as far as learning.  They just might do it in a different way. Our students may not walk or talk but they enjoy being spoken to, played with and comforted. The like to be silly and laugh.” 

“I feel like the partnership with Lakeview can last a life time,” said Hajduk. “I definitely felt like I connected with the students even though at first I thought I would not be able to. It was very interesting to see that the students were interested in the same topics as most teens in the Middle School.” 

“The impact our students make on others is positive and eye opening,” said Ackerman. “Middle School students are at the age where they can understand acceptance, differences and tolerance. This can hopefully carry over to not just children with disabilities but to people of different races, religions, backgrounds, etc. It could help to build positive relationships between any and all people because we are all different.” 

In May of 2016, six students from Lakeview visited The South Plainfield Middle School. Escorted by Middle School students excited to lead the Lakeview students through the hallways of their school, the Lakeview students navigated through the busy school enjoying every minute. 

“An interaction with our students can foster patience, looking at the world differently, creativity and discovery,” added Ackerman. “They may grow up and want to teach, be in the medical profession, engineers or an endless number of professions that can improve the quality of someone’s life. Maybe this started with a visit to Lakeview, spending time with a student who perhaps can’t walk, talk or see; this can change the world forever.” 

“I felt that the students were very happy that we came to their school and they then came to ours,” said Hajduk. “The partnership will be a great experience for all students for many years.  I will continue to be the biggest advocate for the partnership, even though I am not the Principal of the Middle School.” 

“When there is the opportunity to spend time with a person with a disability, all of the differences go aside and the two people become primary; not the disability,” said Alfano. “Whenever you have an opportunity to learn about people, talk with them, play with them, spend time together, etc. you open your world to many possibilities. Our students enjoy when students visit them and when they can do things together. We like showing how we do the same things, and like the same things that students without disabilities do, except we may do them with adaptations.” 

“Even though a child or a person is disabled, it surely does not mean that they are less qualified to be a friend,” said Brian Gallagher Middle School Student. “South Plainfield students can learn many things from the students at Lakeview and even become friends. They can learn about each other’s struggles, hopes and dreams.” 

Alfano added, “It has long been known that in order to make a difference in this world, we must do what Eleanor Roosevelt said, ‘if we wish to create a lasting peace, we must begin with the children’.” 

During February 3rd’s With Differences Aside assembly, the Middle School plans to present several switch-operated toys and devices to Brianna’s class. The South Plainfield students have worked hard to collect toys and convert them to switch-operated devices.  Plans for the Middle School’s next visit to Lakeview are underway.

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