This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prevents employment discrimination against individuals with disabilities. Each year in October, National Disability Employment Awareness Month recognizes the contributions of America’s workers with disabilities. This year’s theme, Advancing Access and Equity is embodied by New Jersey’s County special services school districts.

Each of New Jersey’s eight county special services districts works hard to prepare young adults for the future – and sometimes that future is working in the districts where they once attended school. Through partnerships with local businesses and a program that provides support every step of the way, students are well-prepared to enter the workforce and become independent members of the community.

County special services schools are specially equipped to provide the kind of wraparound environment that benefits both the alumni employees and the schools. The support students receive does not discontinue when they transition to become employees. Alumni who are employees talk to their case manager and have check-ins with a principal or supervisor to receive feedback and coaching – all contributing factors to their success.

At the New Jersey Joint Council of County Special Services School Districts, we are celebrating these dynamic individuals and spotlighting some of the alumni who have returned to their districts to make contributions as employees.

Supporting Interests and Achieving Goals: Samantha

Four smiling students sit in chairs while their classroom aide stands behind them.

Samantha enjoys helping students in her role as a classroom aide.

Atlantic County Special Services School District’s own Samantha fills two roles within the district — as a classroom aide and a transportation aide. During her four years as a student at Special Services, Samantha showed a genuine interest in working with children while lending a hand and providing support to some of the classes with younger students. Samantha had the opportunity to hone her workplace readiness skills by participating in a Transitional Living Skills Program work-based learning experience. She worked at an off-site location, where she received support from a job coach and other staff members. Samantha’s direct supervisor served as her mentor and helped to facilitate her employment with the school district following the completion of her educational program. Now, Samantha is one of the district’s most valued employees.

“She comes to work each and every day with a smile on her face and a positive attitude,” said Erin Lichtenwalner, Director of Instruction, Programs and Services for Atlantic County Special Services School District.

In addition to her positivity, Samantha is highly in tune with the needs of the children in her class and uses her strong connection with them to offer support when and how the students need it.

“I enjoy helping others learn and teaching them that it is okay to make mistakes and grow from them,” Samantha says about her role. “Not everyone is perfect!”

Student Strengths Lead to Future Success: Stephen

A male office worker smiles as he stands next to the mail bin and places a piece of mail inside.

Stephen puts his organizational and social skills to work in the district’s mailroom.

Stephen from Bergen County Special Services School District attended the Springboard Program, designed for young adults ages 18-21, where he was able to sample a variety of work experiences through group internships. The team quickly noticed his strong organizational and social skills along with a desire to help others and steered him toward experiences and employment opportunities that fit these strengths. As a student, he began working in the district’s mailroom with his job coach, where he was able to flourish and gradually become more independent. He was so successful in this role that he was offered a paid position after he graduated.

Now, Stephen really enjoys continuing to be a part of the school district community as well as an active member of the Springboard alumni community.

“He is friendly and kind and is thriving as part of the large and welcoming school community where he once was a student,” said Dr. Howard Lerner, Superintendent of Bergen County Special Services School District. “We are fortunate to have Stephen continue into adulthood as a part of the BCSSSD family.”

From Student to Positive Role Model: Jaxon

A male teacher’s assistant smiles with his class in the background.

Jaxon sets an example to the entire student body as a teacher’s assistant.

Jaxon began his journey at Burlington County Special Services School District as a preschool student and continued attending through high school graduation and completing the Transition Program at 21. He has always had an interest in helping others and considers himself a friend to everyone – two valuable qualities that BCSSSD staff noticed and encouraged Jaxon to continue cultivating with employment opportunities.

Through his work-based learning experiences, Jaxon was able to work with students and it became evident to the staff who mentored him that this was his calling. Not long after he began working with students, Jaxon himself realized that he wanted to become a teacher’s assistant. After completing the Transition Program, he filled out an application and prepared for his interviews with a portfolio of experiences to share, showing how he was qualified for the job. Now Jaxon works as a teacher’s assistant at the Westampton Main Campus, where he not only provides guidance to the students in his classes, but he’s also an example to the entire student body of what they can accomplish if they set goals and work toward achieving them.

“I think that I can be a role model because I’m disabled along with them, so they can see me as an inspiration,” said Jaxon. “I like being in a classroom because I can help everyone. My hope is for them [all the students] to successfully graduate, be as independent as possible, go out and get a job and remember – it’s ok to be who you are.”

Dedication is Part of the Job: Patrick

A district worker stands between his supervisor and the district superintendent, as they all smile.

Patrick is a valuable part of the school community, where he has been working since 1996.

Patrick, a 1994 graduate from Mercer County Special Services School District, has been working there full time since 1996. His interest in the field started with a class in high school where he learned about caring for the district’s buildings and grounds. He gained experience through this class and later expanded to doing indoor cleaning work – and that’s where his dedication and attention to detail really shined. Patrick now works in every building across the district. He cleans daily in lunch rooms and classrooms and participates in end-of-year cleaning that involves undertaking large projects like moving furniture and refinishing floors to prepare the schools to welcome students each fall.

Through it all, one thing is clear, everyone – from students to staff members – knows Patrick. His smile is contagious as is the pride he feels about his work. His favorite part of his job is seeing the students every day in the cafeteria. According to his supervisor, Mr. Lazoni, Patrick’s work ethic and loyalty are second to none and he sets an incredible example for the custodial team as well as the students who attend the schools.

“Patrick is a valuable part of the Mercer County Special Services community,” said Dr. Matthew Carey, Superintendent of Mercer County Special Services School District. “He shows up every day with a smile and this place would not be the same without him.”

Mentoring Makes a Difference: Khalil

A male teacher’s assistant stands outside with two young male students, who are smiling, one is giving two thumbs up.

Khalil shares a connection with the students in his classroom, which helps him in his role as a teacher’s assistant.

Khalil, also from Mercer County Special Services, works as a teacher’s assistant in a classroom at the Joseph F. Cappello School where he assists early elementary-aged students. He expressed an interest in this field during high school and was first hired as a teacher’s assistant during extended school year (ESY) last summer. He received a mentor, who helped him adjust from being a student to the roles and responsibilities of a teacher’s assistant. After being very successful during ESY, he was brought on as a full-time teacher’s assistant this school year where he assists students in the classroom with staying on task. Mr. Khalil, as the students call him, instantly connected with the students and was able to jump right into his role.

“We want to help all our students be contributing members of the community. Seeing Khalil be successful warms the heart,” said Cappello School Principal Clara Bigos. “Khalil is a shining example to other students who have the goal of working in a classroom after they graduate.”

The exceptional alumni showcased in this story are just a small sampling of the students and alumni who are out in the working world, using the valuable knowledge and preparation they gained from county special services schools. The administration and staff who assist them along their path take pride in the many offerings that are available to students as they pursue their interests and prepare for their next steps.

“We are so proud of the accomplishments of all our Special Services Schools alumni,” said Jamie Moscony, Joint Council Chairperson and Superintendent of Cape May County Special Services School District. “When alumni want to return to our districts as employees, it’s an incredible testament to the work that we do and an honor to continue to support them as they continue to achieve their goals.”