Summer program expands academic, social skills for special needs students

Over the summer, a six-week Extended School Year Program (ESY) —  specifically designed for children and young adults with learning and physical disabilities — provided students of various age groups positive experiences, both academically and socially.

The program was organized by the Hillsborough Department of Special Services, and Joan Muldoon — a school psychologist for Sunnymead and Triangle Elementary Schools and ESY coordinator — spoke on its success during a Board of Education meeting on Sept. 17.

“Having worked with this district for 11 years, and as ESY coordinator for the last three, I have to say that it has been a pleasure to be a part of such a well-executed program,” Muldoon said. “It is not the summer school that I remember. Students were actively engaged in meaningful instruction with the support of our dedicated staff members, all while having fun doing so.”

This summer, there were a total of 281 students with disabilities who participated in the program, according to Muldoon. Of those students, 221 were from the ages of 5 to 21, and the program served 60 students in the preschool program. The program also recruited school district staff and 130 student volunteers from across the district to assist and work with the students in the program.

During the program, which took place from July 2 to August 10, the students were able to work on and maintain their academic skills in subject areas such as reading, writing and math, while developing socially, Muldoon said.

Many students worked with speech therapists for language and communication, while others worked with occupational and physical therapists for motor skills.

“These services were creatively provided through a variety of formats, either individually or in small groups,” Muldoon said. “Some therapies were provided in a classroom setting, and some through a more natural setting, such as on the playground or school building and even on the class trip.”

The class trip, Muldoon said, involved a sensory-friendly visit to Hillsborough Cinema to see “Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation.”

“During the film, the sound was lowered and the lights were dimmed, as the objective of the trip was to help desensitize our students to the movie experience and to generalize the communication and social skills in the public setting,” she said.

For students on the Autism spectrum, any of the senses can be over- or under-stimulated and can affect everyday activities, such as watching a movie.

According to the National Autistic Society, (NAS) over-sensitivity to sound can cause noises to be “magnified and sounds [to] become distorted and muddled.” This can also lead to difficulty concentrating.

By bringing up the theater lights more than usual, it can allow for a more enjoyable movie experience, as well. If vision is under-sensitive, NAS says, objects can appear dark, and central vision can be blurred. If it is over-sensitive, bright objects can “jump around” and can be distorted.

Older students in the ESY community work program took weekly trips to ShopRite to learn more about price comparison on items and successfully checking out at a register, Muldoon said.

“Upon returning to the ESY Program, our students sorted and disseminated the items to the teachers,” she said. “We are very proud of our students’ accomplishments and appreciate their contributions to our ESY Program, as they are working towards transition into adulthood.”

In addition, the ESY Program’s annual school supply drive was organized by students in Ernest Bernhard’s grade 9 and 10 classes, and the students delivered the school supplies donated by families of participating students to the Hillsborough Food Pantry.

Not only did the program allow for the students to continue their academic study, it also gave them the opportunity to meet and socialize with other students from across the school district, Muldoon said.

“Overall, it is truly a rewarding experience for our students, and one they should feel proud of,” she added.