WEST ORANGE, NJ – As students and visitors walk through the hallway near the Pleasant Valley Way Attendance Office at West Orange High School, they are greeted with several cases of artwork that includes sculptures, paintings and drawings. However, what most people do not realize is that the art is the creation of the Self-Contained Autistic Classroom at WOHS, and that the students have much more to say.
Upon entering their classroom, one sees photography and self-portraits designed from magazine photos, and even individualized toiletry kits and personal supplies. The classroom is meant to be not only a place of education and creativity, but of practicality, where daily life skills are reinforced.
On April 14, however, the buzz was about the Autism Awareness T Shirts created by the students with the help of Art Teacher Nicole Krulik, who worked with teacher Mallory DeMarco to help the class put on paper what was in their hearts and minds.
DeMarco described the process: One student loves lions, so a lion is part of the design. Another loves maps, so there is a globe. Others helped with line work and images.
Senior Alex Schuppel, a graphic artist at the high school, took all the design components and put them together into a shirt that gives voice to students who might struggle with language, but nonetheless communicate.
Special Services Supervisor for Grades nine -12 Dawn Ribeiro and Transitional Coordinator Jodi Goldstein, work closely with DeMarco. Currently, there are four students in the Self- Contained Classroom, but several others are integrated into other classes including general education, work study programs, and even part-time college.
"I don’t think people realize what our kids can do, but instead focus on what they can’t,” said Goldstein.
“Mallory and Nicole have helped to give them a voice,” she continued.
Ribeiro was excited about the programs offered by the school district.
“We begin working with the students in ninth grade,” she noted, “and we have them for seven years.”
The district works with special needs students through the age of 21 including the autistic students, continuing academic, life skills, and work programs and helping them transition into other programs.
“Our program is unique and several other school districts send their children here because they do not offer what we do,” she explained.
During the month of April, autistic students read the morning announcements over the public address system.
Principal Hayden Moore, who began his career in the West Orange School District as a member of the Child Study Team said, “We are doing amazing work with our autistic students and the t shirt is just an example.”
He added, “We feel attached to them and this project speaks to great minds that we do not yet fully understand. These students are a highlight of our school and we’re very proud of them.”