SOUTH PLAINFIELD, NJ – In the South Plainfield School District, students with special needs have access to programs that provide necessary academic, social and vocational skills. Offered through the Department of Special Services, the district currently runs the Life Skills and Individualized Functional Education (LIFE) program for high school students as well as a Transition Academy for those through age 21. 

“Our goal is to provide each and every South Plainfield student with the education, training, and experiences that will prepare them for further education or employment," said Andrew Brandon, the district’s director of special services. "It is our hope that all of our students develop skills to be successful in their community once they are done with high school.”

Taught by special education teacher Geoffrey Corisdeo, the LIFE program is geared toward providing academic as well as social and prevocational skills to 9th through 12th graders with multiple disabilities. Currently, there are nine students in the LIFE program; some attend all self-contained academic classes while others are in integrated specials or core subjects.

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“Students in our LIFE program participate in a specialized curriculum focused on the skills necessary for them to meet these goals. These students are taking their academic requirements but that is all fused together and integrated for them through community-based instruction,” said Brandon, adding,  “The focus is on teaching them about the community and how to interact within the community, whether it be going to the grocery store or hanging out at Starbucks, or learning how to enjoy golf.” 

Senior LIFE students also assist the food services department in the cafeteria while all program participants help run the high school’s Wild Tiger Café. A coffee shop of sorts located in the information center, the café is open every Thursday from 9 a.m. to noon and staffed by the LIFE students. Once a week, the students go out into the community and shop for coffee, hot chocolate and the ingredients to make homemade goods, which they sell to teachers, staff and classmates. 

“The Tiger Café helps them in so many different ways. In running the café, students utilize math and reading along with business and organization skills as well as have the opportunity to socially interact with others," said Corisdeo, adding that the LIFE students are also encouraged to get involved through clubs and sports.

“While the program focuses on life skills because that is what they need, at the end of the day, they are South Plainfield High School students and we want them involved in any way they possibly want," he said. 

New to the district is a partnership with The Arc of New Jersey who will be working with staff and students to facilitate discussions on transition topics; The Arc of New Jersey is also planning to offer a parent workshop series during the year. Additionally,

While the LIFE program focuses on teaching students practical life skills, the Transition Academy is geared toward preparing students ages 18 to 21 for employment and other community activities.

“We are trying to provide an experience for students who may need more life skills, vocational training, and/or educational instruction to transition,” said Brandon. “Since most students in the transition program have met formal high school requirements, our goal is to provide them with experiences and an atmosphere that is focused on adult employment and community living skills.”

Implemented at the start of the 2019-2020 school year and run by special education teacher Cynthia Wong, the Transition Academy is designed to provide students with first-hand job experience as well as life skills, including but not limited to, cooking, shopping, budgeting, doing laundry, and more. 

“The Transition Academy stems off of what we have been trying to establish from the very beginning of their high school career which is to provide them with the resources necessary to maintain employment,” said Wong, adding, “For some students, it may take more time than the average person to learn and hone these skills. The goal of this program is to help these students become independent members of society.”

As the program’s transition coordinator, Wong works with local businesses to place students in jobs throughout the community. Currently, the students in the program work alongside a job coach from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at CVS Pharmacy on Oak Tree Road and Mohn’s Florist on Plainfield Avenue for a few hours Tuesday through Friday. The students are responsible for getting themselves to the job site in the morning and, following their shift, are bused back to SPHS for life skills instruction. On Mondays, the students put those skills to use at the supermarket, where they shop for the budgeted items they need for during the week. 

“The program is teaching them time management, providing them financial skills, teaching them self-advocacy and how to be proactive,” said Wong, adding that the program also has a recreation component and a focus on providing the students with the social skills needed for a variety of activities such as going out to eat, interacting in the workplace, or participating meaningfully in the community. 

“All those skills can be applied to any job-related opportunity and the goal is to provide them with the skills to go out and work in the community,” she said. 

The South Plainfield School District is also working to ensure that students have a plan in place once they fully transition out of high school. Through a partnership with the Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities – a division of Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, district staff is being trained on how to help LIFE and Transition Academy students ‘identify their strengths and challenges’ and implement person centered plans.

“Our focus with Person Centered Planning is to involve students in identifying their strengths, challenges, and interests so they are active participants in creating a roadmap for the rest of their education and moving into adulthood,” said Brandon. 

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