Many students at the Atlantic County Special Services School District are generous in committing themselves to a variety of projects at the school, and in doing so receive no shortage of praise from their teachers.

But while recognition from teachers is nice, nothing puts a smile on student faces like being praised before their parents and classmates. On June 18, several students received just that sort of recognition at the school's second annual Arts Award Ceremony in Mays Landing.

"For them, it means the entire world," elementary school-level art teacher Sarah Friedley said. "They can get acknowledgement from us, but when all the rest of the school is able to witness their accomplishments, it means a lot more."

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Cheers echoed through the room as 72 students were called to the head of the auditorium to collect awards for their contributions to jewelry club, clay club, the yearbook cover and more. Recipients beamed with pride as their names were read aloud at the ceremony, many of them triumphantly raising their certificates above their heads.

Friedley and middle/high school-level art teacher Lisa Confora also took the opportunity to unveil a mural the students made this year with the help of Artist in Education Residence Marilyn Keating.

The colorful 24-by-4-foot mural, which hangs on a wall in a hall just off the school's main entrance, was designed to fit the school's motto, Planting the Seeds for Success. The centerpiece of the mural is a large papier mache butterfly flanked by trees and a vibrant sunrise and set against a backdrop of more than 600 clay tiles. Each of the school's more than 400 students made a tile, and the rest were made by staff and parents.

The mural was designed by Keating and executed by a small group of students who met Thursday afternoons since the beginning of the school year, firing, painting, glazing and affixing pieces to the particle board setting.

Many of the students who contributed to the project stuck around after the ceremony to take in their handiwork. Fourth-grader Lexi Clarke, who was honored as a member of the school's art club, said she was proud of herself and her classmates for making the project a success.

"We were really hard workers," the 10-year-old said. "We've been helping a lot since September, when we first started."

Keating was brought to the school through the New Jersey State Council for the Arts' Artist in Education program, which provides grants to schools to implement projects with the help of area artists. The grant, worth $6,000, was matched by the school.

Keating, who has helped at several schools in her 10 years with the Artists in Education program, said the positivity of the Special Services School made the mural one of the most memorable projects she has worked on.

"You get a lot of rejection, and I was feeling beat up, and then I got this job, and it was just so affirmative," Keating said. "I love the kids. It's a really welcoming school."

Friedley applied for the grant at the prodding of a teacher at an annual Artist's Institute she attends at Richard Stockton College. While the grant has been of great value to the students, it has also required her to spend long hours outside the classroom compiling a thick binder of paperwork, so the teacher said she will wait a year before again applying for the grant.

The art teachers plan next year to have the students make mosaics in the school gardens, and while there will be no grants with which to pay her, Keating said she will be part of the project.

"Oh, they have plans for me," Keating said. "I love teaching."

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