Photos courtesy of the ASPIRE Program
By Steve Sears
When it comes to the ASPIRE program, now in its second year at the West Morris Regional High School District, perhaps 19-year-old student, Gillian, says it best. “I like the Structured Learning Experience (SLE) component of the program, because it allows me to go out in the community and sample some jobs. The ASPIRE program helped and continues to help me build my confidence.”
ASPIRE, which stands for “Adult Student Program In Reaching Empowerment,” is a program for 18–21 year-old Special Education students that is housed at West Morris Central High School in Long Valley, but is a district-wide program.
Michelle Mongey, a teacher in the WMRHSD for 36 years, is in her third year as SLE Coordinator. “Because of a Special Education law, students with disabilities can stay with us until they’re 21,” Mongey explains. “And we had been for years using different programs in the community to support our students until they were 21, and then realized in the last four years that we could create a very productive program here. I spent a year observing other programs in the community and worked with Bridget because of her expertise in Life Skills.”
Bridgette Catalini has been teaching Special Education Life Skills in the WMRHSD for 20 years. “The program within our district is new,” she says of ASPIRE, whose students in the program either attend West Morris Central and Mendham high schools, or come from out of the district. “I am always excited when I see students utilize skills learned in the classroom to real-life settings. It is a rewarding experience to know that each day we are working with students with the goal of helping them to be as independent as possible when they leave our program.”
Students are in the classroom every morning, Monday through Thursday, the classes consisting of comprehensive life and employment essential skills. In addition, there is an adaptive Physical Education health and recreation course, and then in the afternoon students go to SLE and job experience. On Fridays, which is called “Fun Fridays,” mornings are followed by CBI (Community Based Instruction).
Lizzy is 20-years-old. “I enjoy going out in the community on Fridays and learning about life lessons.”
CBI is an important part of the ASPIRE program. Instead of the traditional classroom setting, the students are taken out into the real world and apply what they’ve learned. “They may not have as many opportunities to purchase things by themselves, or actually, with money and counting out change,” says Scott Iantosca, who is new to West Morris Central this year as a Special Ed teacher. “We practice counting out change in class, but when you’re standing in line at the store, that can be very stressful for students. They’re actually getting real world experience when we go out into the world, and we see a huge difference each time we go out.”
Tatiana, 18, enjoys learning more about money skills, CBI, and working. She says, “I like working at stores like Adam’s Pet Safari.” Mackenzie, who is 21, states that highlights for her are learning job skills, doing morning meetings, meeting her 18-20-year-old peers.
Current ASPIRE students work at Black Oak Golf Club, Walgreens, Adam’s Pet Safari, Marshall’s, Quick Chek, Sunny Days Daycare, RACKS boutique, Old Mill Tavern, Chester Lighting, ShopRite, Windswept Boutique, Linda’s Biscotti, Valley Restaurant, J Walker Salon and Ort Farms. “We also focus a lot on employment and employment skills,” adds Catalini. “They’re used to us, but then when they’re out working at an SLE placement, that’s another key piece of socialization, interacting with their supervisor or co-workers, or customers that might come in.”
19-year-old Thomas says, “I like going on CBI outings, and I like to learn more about jobs.” Louis, also 19, has enjoyed the SLE placement experience. “They helped me get some jobs at different places.”
Iantosca adds, “We also do have our daily life skills components. We have two ovens in the classroom, a refrigerator, a microwave, sort of in apartment setup where they’re also especially learning some basic cooking skills, thinking as independently as possible. These are little things that we may take for granted, and that we want to make sure that the students are getting some reinforcement with and encouraged to do and learn to do.”
Sara, age 19, whose favorite day of her ASPIRE week is Thursday, has learned it’s important to take care of herself. And speaking of that apartment setup, she says, “I want to learn how to cook more.” Lauren, 20, who is also fond of Thursdays and CBI outings, loves the entire ASPIRE experience. She explains why. “It helped me advocate, because it showed me that if I finish a task at work, I can ask if there’s anymore tasks that need to be done.”
Mongey says, “Our goal for SLEs in ASPIRE is that these job samples could possibly lead to job/career interests and independent employment. It is vital for our ASPIRE young adults to make employment connections before they leave the district. We also work to help their families transition to adult services.”
Michael Reinknecht has been the school district’s Director of Social Services since 2017. “Our ASPIRE team – Bridgette Catalini, Scott Iantosca, Michelle Mongey – and our support staff and job coaches bring a wealth of knowledge to the ASPIRE program. ASPIRE is truly the ideal program for our adult students who have met graduation requirements, but aren’t quite ready to transition to post-graduation life. The West Morris Board of Education and central office administration have always been fervently supportive of providing this program in-house in order to benefit our students.”