Students and staff at the Atlantic County Special Services School in Mays Landing joined thousands of others from around the world Sept. 21 to celebrate International Day of Peace 2012, planting about 450 colorful pinwheels in the school's front lawn as part of an annual event known as Pinwheels for Peace.

Elementary-level art teacher Sara Friedley, who along with high school-level art teacher Lisa Confora brought the program to the district in 2009, said the program has become a highlight of the start of the school year for students and staff alike.

"It's all we talk about at the beginning of the year and it's all we do right at the start of the year, and every year it gets a little bit bigger," Friedley said.

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Pinwheels for Peace was started in 2005 by a pair of art teachers at a Florida high school who sought a way to help their students express their feelings about their lives and the world around them.

As soon as she heard about it, Confora knew the program would be a valuable addition to the curriculum. Students often transfer to the Special Services School as a result of struggles in their home districts, and the program gives them an important outlet and helps create a cooperative community, she said.

"They have struggles within their own districts, then they're sent here and this is just another way to support the programs here," Confora said. "They can unify with something peaceful rather than drama or conflict."

The school held a short ceremony after planting the pinwheels, and Music Director Carol Costigan, who is also involved in planning the event each year, led a chorus of students through a few songs. Several students also prepared speeches which they shared at the ceremony.

Colton McKinnon, 18, was one of those who spoke. He said that although he was nervous, the importance of the subject matter made standing in front of the crowd a breeze.

"Peace is a definite thing, we all need to have peace in order to live, so I just spoke from the heart and it came out easy," McKinnon said.

The start of school is often a stressful time for students at the Special Services School, who sometimes have trouble acclimating to change. Art class, and the Pinwheels the students make in it for the first few weeks of each school year, are an important constant, Costigan said.

"Teachers are doing assessments, kids are getting used to new classrooms," Costigan said. "Now that they're getting used to this happening every year, I think that focus in the art classes gives them something they can hold onto and count on."

Friedley said the administration and staff at the school have been very supportive of the program since its inception, recognizing the important role community plays in the lives of their students.

"It's so easy for them to find success in the arts and the music, so we try so hard to give them every single opportunity to find that success and feel proud of themselves and know that they're worth something," Friedley said. "We all work really hard together all year to do that."

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