NORTH CALDWELL, NJ - Students in the West Essex High School Job Coaching and Life Skills Program don’t just learn about calculating the cost of purchases in the classroom—they also participate in the Community Based Learning program (CBI), where they take regular field trips to stores like West Caldwell’s CVS and ShopRite to shop and fulfill orders for district staff members by packing grocery bags.

They also make trips to the bank, post office, Target and area restaurants. And students participate in vocational opportunities within the school, such as: sorting mail, filing, shelving books in the school library and stocking in the cafeteria.

West Essex High School special education teacher Gabriella Bauer said the high school program combines structured learning experiences, job coaching and community-based instruction to help special needs students become active community members. Activities include those that develop life skills, everyday problem solving, vocational skills, and occupational therapy to build spatial reasoning, social interaction and curriculum integration.

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In a recent class, Bauer said she worked with students on calculating the cost of purchases at a store and then practiced packing grocery bags of different items. She said that during the regular trips to ShopRite and CVS, the students learn to handle money, collect money from staff and get change for them at the respective stores.

The program has different objectives in different subject areas said Bauer. In mathematics, Bauer guides students as they share whole dollar amounts equally, explore computational strategies for division and interpret the remainder, explore two-digit multiplication and demonstrate an understanding of vocabulary terms and applying them to word problems.

In Language Arts, the program aims to give students an understanding of punctuation, spelling, grammar and comprehension to react with literal and critical comprehension and to understand literary story elements. In science, Bauer said she works with her students to build an understanding of scientific theory, human biology and the importance of everything from organs to bones and muscles.

In Life Skills, Bauer’s goal is to develop and strengthen vocational skills including cooperatively preparing recipes, planning and developing shopping and other grocery-related skills.

“The CBI or Community Based Learning Program instills confidence in students and builds self-esteem,” said Bauer.

West Essex High School hopes to expand the program with local businesses, working with local businesses to give students valuable work experience for school credit.

There are several currently enrolled in the program, but Bauer said the program still has openings and could accommodate students from neighboring districts.

“It’s wonderful to watch the students develop life skills immersed in the community setting,” said Tania Symmons, West Essex director of Special Services. “The students have an opportunity to strengthen vocational skills with the goal of preparing for independent employment in the future.”