VENTNOR — With the help of puppets and music, students in the self-contained special education class at Ventnor Elementary School are learning through a unique program recognized recently by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

The school was one of five in the state to receive the 2018 Innovations in Special Education Award and will be honored this week as part of Special Education Week. The awards, which began in 2002, are presented in coordination with the ASAH, a statewide organization that serves the private special education community.

“Our program has been cited as an example of a successful, creative effort that enables special needs students to achieve their potential,” said Gina Scharff, the district supervisor of special education and ELL services.

The judges cited Ventnor’s program for incorporating the use of puppets to foster communication and engage and motivate students, according to Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association.

The program at Ventnor is called TEAM, which Scharff said stands for “teaching and educating with authentic methods.” During different lessons, including on interpersonal skills, the teacher uses a puppet to talk to the students, which helps engage them and keep them motivated. The puppets also are used when attempting to regain students’ attention if they become distracted.

The district’s self-contained teacher, Nancy Fishbein, began the program for 5- to 8-year-old students, many of whom have an aversion to eye contact and interpersonal communication and often have limited understanding of facial expressions and nonverbal language.

“Most of the kids have significant social and communication needs,” Scharff said. “We have kids in the class of varying cognitive ability, but we have several who are quite bright.”

While Fishbein is on maternity leave this year, special education teacher Jane Garbutt has continued the program.

The district rate for students in special education is about 12 percent, Scharff said. Each year, the district fluctuates how intense the program is based on the students’ needs. This year, there are eight students in the class.

Marisel Marrero, of Atlantic City, often volunteers in the classroom where her 6-year-old grandson is a student and has noticed the benefits of the program.

“He has made tremendous progress in that class. The teachers are just excellent. The aides … they’re great. They engage all the children all the time,” Marrero said.

Scharff said the program helps the students unlock their communication capabilities.

“What we find these kids are drawn to in this program are the animation, the technology and the rhythmic voices. These kids are engaging with a puppet for really dynamic communication,” she said.

Scharff, who serves as the acting superintendent, said the district is proud of the honor. She added the program has been vigorously supported by Superintendent Eileen Johnson, currently out of the district on leave.

“We’ve had interest from other districts about sending kids to our program. It’s invigorating. We’re all passionate, and it has reignited our passion to the highest level,” she said.

Contact: 609-272-7251

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I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.