Teaching special-needs students the skills to thrive in the world outside of school has earned a Pinelands Regional Junior High School teacher and his students the 2013 Innovations in Special Education Award.

“Wildcats in Business” was among eight winning programs chosen from 55 entries submitted by schools throughout the state.

The students and special education teacher Tracy Rosario accepted the award May 13 during Special Education Week at an event at the Westin Princeton Forrestal Village. The award is presented by the New Jersey School Boards Association and ASAH, an association of private special education schools and agencies, to recognize creative special education programming.

Rosario started Wildcats in Business, which is made up of four separate businesses that use real money, at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year without a budget. She was able to expand the program this year.

The curriculum teaches the special-needs students communication, math, how to follow directions and social skills.

“Students improve social and community-based interaction while serving their school community,” said Kimberly Tucker, supervisor of special education at Pinelands Regional Junior High School.

Tucker said students have developed a better understanding of real jobs and the joy of serving others under Rosario’s leadership. The students have worked with Rosario to promote their business by creating brochures and are also filming a commercial.

Part of the curriculum includes the Wash and Wear program, in which students operate a laundry service for staff that was helpful to athletic coaches and cooking teachers in the district. Following Hurricane Sandy, the students offered their laundry service to those affected by the storm.

Another aspect of the Wildcats in Business program is a full-service kitchen in the classroom, which is part of the Cats, Coffee & Cakes program. Rosario and classroom assistant Donna Petro assist the students as they take orders and prepare and deliver coffee and treats to district staff members every Friday.

Two Fridays each month, students in the program also operate Cats Cafe, where they act as chefs, waiters and busboys as they serve staff members lunch in their classroom.

The students also work

in the school greenhouse, dubbed the Cats Greenhouse, where they grow and sell plants for special occasions, including Valentine’s Day and Easter.

Rosario said she hopes to expand the program again next year by offering off-campus trips to places such as the grocery store to purchase ingredients for Cats Cafe and Cats, Coffee & Cakes.

Parents have reported that their children are taking on increased responsibility at home as a direct result of Wildcats in Business, applying skills to cook, clean and do the laundry, Rosario said.

“These business ventures have not only been learning opportunities, they’ve also been enjoyable for students and staff alike,” Tucker said.

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Worked as a reporter for various weekly newspapers in Ocean, Atlantic and Cape May counties before joining The Press many moons (and editors) ago as a business copy editor. Passionate about journalism, averse to serial commas.