Summer Program Promotes Success!

While many students countdown to the summer months of no schoolwork. Our students with special needs continued in the classroom through Aug. 1, and they couldn’t have been happier about it!

ECLC offers what is known as an Extended School Year (ESY) program at both our Chatham and Ho-Ho-Kus schools.

Most students attend as proscribed by their Individual Education Plan (IEP). The program is critical so students don’t backslide. They enjoy an August “break” for vacation and other leisure, but it’s practically a year-around program to ensure every student’s success.

A Ho-Ho-Kus school student takes a session with the occupational therapist as part of the Extended School Year (ESY) program.

“For students with special needs, an extended time away from a structured learning program can be detrimental,” said Chatham School Principal Jason Killian. “They can start to lose the progress they have made during the year and really fall behind. It’s not just academics. They need to keep up their occupational and speech therapy; skills of daily living; and social skills.”

The ESY program is included as part of a student’s IEP, which determines what additional supports they need from year to year. The program supports our students continuous learning and growing. Happy summer break!

The Gift of An Extra Year

This holiday season, the Cabrales family of Elizabeth is counting their blessings because of a choice offered to Daniel, 21, last summer. 

Daniel is diagnosed with autism and for the past 12 years has attended ECLC of New Jersey’s school in Chatham for students with special needs. Last June, Daniel was on track to graduate, after reaching age 21. But under a new state law, he was allowed stay in school for an extra year.

“It was definitely the best choice for him,” said his older sister, Geovanna.  “He wants to be in school for the rest of his life. That’s what he knows and that’s where he’s comfortable with his friends.”

The bipartisan state law signed by Gov. Murphy in June allowed students with special needs an extension on their education because of the disruptions to learning and work-place training that occurred in 2020. 

Daniel Cabrales, with Chatham School Principal Jason Killian, walked in his graduation ceremony but has stayed on for an extra year at the school thanks to a New Jersey law passed in June.

ECLC was one of the first schools to return to in-person, classroom learning in September of 2020, however, many of the community integration experiences were not possible for students. 

Preparing students for life as adults is core to ECLC’s mission of providing “Education, Careers & Lifelong Community.” In their final year at ECLC, students spend time in the community “job sampling” to get a feel for the type of jobs they might pursue after graduation. With businesses shut down or operating in a limited fashion, and strict COVID protocols in place, those opportunities weren’t available.

Instead, during the 2020-21 school year, work projects moved in-house and were completed in the classrooms. It wasn’t the same as being in a workplace, learning the tasks and soft skills required to land and hold down a job as an adult. 

Daniel returned to ECLC this Fall and has flourished. Many students like Daniel chose another year, rather than graduate. They are exploring jobs and considering their future options, with support from the transition team at ECLC’s affiliate, Community Personnel Services (CPS).

Daniel was placed at Kirby’s Kitchen at the F.M. Kirby Children’s Center at the Madison Y. There, he helps the chef prepare meals for children and delivers them, along with his co-workers. He is responsible for light clean up in the kitchen; loading and emptying the dishwasher; and maintaining a clean, neat and organized kitchen environment. 

“Daniel does a fantastic job following directions, taking initiative, and being patient while food cooks, which can be difficult!,” said teacher Stacie Weber, who is the school’s SKIL/Work Program Coordinator. “He demonstrates great communication skills with his co-workers and takes great pride in his work!”

The extra year is allowing Daniel and other students to better prepare for the big leap from the classroom into life after graduation. It is truly a gift.

Therapy Dogs Return to Chatham School!

In another sign of “normalcy,” therapy dogs returned to the Chatham school on Nov. 29 for the first time since the pandemic started, almost two years ago!

Three pups and their owners from Creature Comfort Pet Therapy, based in Madison, spent several hours roaming the hallways, and popping into classrooms, to spend time with students.

The youngsters couldn’t wait to pet and cuddle with the dogs, who are especially trained to gently interact with people. Students visited on the floor or allowed smaller dogs to sit in their laps for a few minutes.

The dogs were like magnets, excitedly greeted by students and staff alike, who seemed just as happy as the students to see their furry friends.

There’s more to the dog’s visit than just a fun time. The positive impact of pet therapy as a stress-reliever is well-established. This nonprofit provides teams of dogs and their owners who visit hospitals, schools, libraries, mental health facilities, special-needs schools and senior centers.

Judging by the smiles and laughter filling the classrooms, clearly our students and staff can’t wait for them to return!

Starting the School Year Proud & Strong!

As ECLC of New Jersey’s Ho-Ho-Kus campus arrived back to school this September, the pandemic was still a reality. This presented a unique set of challenges: wearing masks, continuing to practice social distancing and keeping our hands clean and sanitized. 

This new reality may have taken a bit of adjustment, but we were up to the challenge last year, and we are even more committed to making school as normal as possible this year. One thing, however, has never been truer:

“Our entire school community remains both proud and strong!”

We are incredibly proud of all of our classes and programs, but our work program is a particular source of pride for us. When it had to be discontinued during the pandemic, our students were definitely disappointed. 

Student at work site
This student is learning the ropes of retail, working at a local hardware store.

Now, for the first time since March 2020, our students are back to work, and they are absolutely thrilled! Students hold jobs in a wide variety of local businesses, including the public library, laundromat and hardware store. 

In-school jobs have resumed as well! Our students can be found assembling boxes for a pizzeria, cleaning windows, taking out garbage and recycling, laminating items for teachers, doing light custodial work and delivering lunches. 

But what surpasses ECLC’s pride in our work program is the tremendous sense of satisfaction that our students take in their jobs. One seldom sees a student hard at work who doesn’t have a huge smile on their face. 

Students look forward to working, eagerly anticipating the arrival of their favorite job coach who will accompany them and facilitate their work tasks. 

Students go above and beyond when it comes to in-school jobs as well, often asking to sweep the art room or help take out the garbage without being asked. And, while our students excel at both community and in-school jobs, our staff is the committed glue that binds us together as one dedicated school community. 

Team Building for Back-to-School

When the staff returned in September and hit an imaginary reset button for a shiny new year, they participated in a team-building activity in which they made posters to show their commitment to ECLC.

These posters tell the story of our staff’s strong commitment to all of our students. Words like “caring,” “kindness,” “friendly,” ”communication” and “together” are sprinkled on these posters, like the confetti that is sprinkled in our hallways and unites our staff for one purpose: Ensuring that our students get the best education possible while keeping them safe and nurtured.

As one teacher’s poster stated pointedly: Our Hearts Rock. That has never been truer than in this constantly changing pandemic world. Our hearts may rock, but they are also rock solid in their strong commitment to our students. 

Students, like these working at a senior living facility, develop skills for life after graduation.

ECLC’s pride and commitment to our work program coupled with the strength and dedication of our staff is what continues to make ECLC an amazing place for learning and growing.

Throughout the pandemic and beyond, whether one sees students proudly working or witnesses the inner strength of the dedicated adults gently guiding them through their days, we are ECLC proud and strong.

By Heidi Ritzel, Language Arts Teacher, & Stephanie Sylvester, SKIL (Seeking Knowledge for Independence) Teacher

Teacher at SmartBoard

Extended School Year: It’s not just fun and games!

Students with special needs don’t toss aside their books during the summer. The school year continues with what is called ESY or Extended School Year.

This summer in our Ho-Ho-Kus school, we are back to a schedule of full days for ESY.  Although we still maintain social distancing and wear masks (as much as we can), students have the chance to participate in a full day of instruction, therapies and specials once again. 

Our work experience students are now able to go back out to their local jobs, and our older class have resumed their Community Based-Instruction (CBI) class trips around town.

When we thought about choosing a theme for this summer, what could be more exciting than the return of the Olympic Games? Each class has chosen a different country to learn about and to cheer on during the games. 

As usual, class instruction crosses all areas of curriculum.  When thinking about countries participating in the Olympics, teachers can include topics in geography, identifying the location of the country on a map and see their proximity to the United States. 

In science, learning about the climate of the region and comparing our weather patterns to theirs.  Learning about the arts, music and cultures of the countries are part of our social studies activities, as well as learning some of their history and special events.  

In math, students can learn about the various Olympic games; replicate some skills in the classroom; and chart their results for time, distance and overall medal count.  Not to be left out, in language arts, students can read and hear stories about their country, write facts, and learn common expressions. 

Our physical education classes are doing a mini version of the Olympics with different sports and competitions. Our art classes have been creating Olympic banners and posters with Olympic rings and coloring country flags. Classes can take virtual tours of their country as well. It’s the next best thing to being there!

Of course, it still is summer, so we try to have our classes get outside when it’s not too hot or humid.  The younger students enjoy the playground for a movement break and have fun being outside with their friends.    

On Fridays, we are holding virtual assemblies. All of our classes and virtual students log into Zoom to watch a live presentation. We recently watched, “Corey, the Dribbler” dazzle us with his basketball skills.  Our students had some great questions for him at the end of his presentation. Students in our gym classes will be looking to spin and dribble basketballs, “a la Corey”. His message throughout the presentation was to practice, have patience and be resilient in school, sports and at home.  A philosophy from which we can all benefit.

Another Friday treat in the summer is a visit by the ice cream truck.  Students can pick their favorite flavor for a cool, tasty dessert.  It’s a great way to end each week!

Peggy Walsh, Ho-Ho-Kus School, Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant

Students on Zoom

A Look Back at Spring 2020 – Thinking Outside the Zoom Box!

When we think of Zoom, our minds immediately see those now-famous rectangles, with each person who is participating placed into a neat little box. But as the pandemic took hold, it wasn’t just students who were placed into boxes. In many cases, their quality of education became stuck in a box as well.

When ECLC of New Jersey’s Ho-Ho-Kus campus switched to virtual learning, however, we did not just think outside the box, we did everything out of the box. The pandemic may have closed down our school and turned the entire world on its axis, but we successfully met the challenges of continuing to provide both quality educational and recreational activities for our students. Although we may have been separated by computer screens and able to see each other only in small boxes, ECLC took the ultimate social distancing of virtual learning and used it to bring staff, students, and families together in unique and innovative ways. 

Essential in the mission of ECLC is to provide an appropriate educational program for our special needs students who are ages 5-21. Meeting their unique instructional needs, learning differences, and behaviors is a challenge for our teachers and staff on a “normal” day. In a pandemic with school closed and everyone shifting to a virtual mode, it became especially daunting.

When the pandemic hit in the Spring of 2020, our staff rose to the task and committed to maintaining quality instruction and support in all academic, therapeutic, and recreational areas.  

There was a brief period of adjustment, while staff and families figured out the Zoom program and learned new student schedules and log-in codes for class and therapy sessions. It was clear that the students wanted to be engaged in lessons and stay connected to their friends in the classroom. Teachers planned lessons, collected materials, and mailed instructional packets home on a regular basis. ECLC provided laptops, iPads, and other technology to families who lacked those resources. Parents who had difficulty logging on each day were given individual coaching to resolve the issues.

In a relatively short period of time, teachers were finding various instructional supports such as literacy rich Websites, e-books, interactive math lessons, virtual community trips, and science experiments that easily could be done at home. They shared these resources and supported each other through this strange retraining period. Classes shared planned activities as well. Two of our Work Experience classes get together periodically to play virtual Jeopardy. Our middle Core classes found virtual pen pals at our sister school in Chatham. Our Lower school classes shared a series of virtual community visits and interviews with local Community Helpers.

As part of the commitment to maintain our educational program, we carried on with scheduled annual events such as our Art Show in May. The usual gallery type of display became a virtual art show that was recorded and sent out to families to view and enjoy.  Not to be outdone, our physical education classes took part in a Virtual Field Day with adapted indoor activities for students to enjoy. Awards and medals were sent home for all participants. In the fall, we held a Virtual Science Fair.

During our summer Extended School Year (ESY) Program, our instructional theme was “Zooming Around New Jersey.” Every class went on weekly virtual field trips around the State of New Jersey, from High Point to Cape May. These remote trips included videos, textbooks, and other print materials, as well as cross-curricular activities to reinforce concepts and facts. We also used the “class trip” model to introduce and reinforce the concept of wearing masks when students would go outside of their homes.  Staff and students put their masks on for each virtual trip.  

In addition to offering enriched daily instructional and therapeutic activities for our students, ECLC recognized the need to provide virtual extracurricular activities as well. In a non-pandemic year, students would participate in school spirit days, assemblies, dances, and holiday events.

With a shortened day and in a remote program, however, there would not be time to provide all of the enrichment activities we would be doing in our regular school schedule. Once again, ECLC thought outside the box and began planning a multitude of virtual events.

After-school remote events have included student dances for spring, graduation, fall harvest, holiday, and friendship days. The music teacher is our virtual DJ and selects student favorites to which students can dance and sing along.  In addition, there are regularly scheduled Karaoke meetings. In January, we celebrated National Kazoo Day, sending kazoos home for every student and having a “Kazoom” Party after school!

Our social workers have sessions for individual student counseling, as well as Boys and Girls group meetings throughout the year. There are virtual Parent Support Group meetings and Parent workshops offered in partnership with our sister school.  

Our 2020 school year ended with virtual graduation, complete with speeches, diplomas, and even surprise celebrity shout-outs. Families were able to celebrate this milestone with as much pride and excitement as if we had been in person.

Perhaps one of the most creative and unique after-school programs ECLC offered was Evening Bedtime Stories for students in our four Lower classes. At the suggestion of a teacher, this was another effort to keep a connection between ECLC and our families during this unusual time. Staff members signed up to read aloud or record a children’s book for a bedtime story. Each evening at 7 p.m., staff and families logged on to Zoom, and our students with their parents and sometimes siblings gathered to listen to a story, some familiar, some new. We determined that from the shut down through our Extended School Year summer program, our students listened to almost 100 great stories with no repeats!

The pandemic was a challenge for all schools, but with ECLC’s dedication to innovative strategies, we were able to remain a vital part of our students’ lives both during the school day and beyond despite being virtual. By continuing to provide quality academics paired with after-school activities that were both enriching and fun, ECLC students continued to thrive.

ECLC may have been tested during the pandemic, as all schools were, but our commitment to maintaining normalcy for our students became stronger than ever! With innovative ideas and creative thinking that went beyond the box, the rectangles keeping us apart began to blur and then disappear completely, keeping together our strong and vibrant ECLC family, Zooming through and beyond the pandemic together.

By Peggy Walsh, Learning Disabilities Teacher Consultant, & Heidi Ritzel, Art Teacher

ECLC of New Jersey Successfully Offers In-Person Education for Students with Special Needs

Children with disabilities, such as Down syndrome, are among those most vulnerable to COVID-19, yet since September classrooms have been open at ECLC of New Jersey’s schools for students with special needs.

The schools located in Chatham and Ho-Ho-Kus reopened in the Fall and have remained open nearly every day for in-person education. 

Of course, it wasn’t easy returning 250 students, who live in towns all across New Jersey, to the classroom. Strict protocols had to be established, and the administration had to reconfigure classrooms to reduce risks. 

Each day, students are temperature-checked before they can enter the building, and parents must complete a COVID-19 Risk Assessment questionnaire, either on a phone app or paper. Students and staff are masked up. Plexiglass shields are installed on  desks to enhance safety.

The school day looks different, too. The schedule has been shortened to four hours daily, and students mostly stay within their assigned classroom, except for gym class, sensory breaks, speech therapy or other specialized services. Art and music are taught virtually by teachers brought into the classroom through Zoom video.

In addition to creating a safe, in-person learning environment, ECLC has worked creatively to continue its work-readiness program. ECLC students graduate at age 21 and spend their final years preparing for life as adults. Usually, older students travel into the community for job sampling and to take tours of work sites. 

During the pandemic that’s impossible, so teachers have brought small jobs into the classroom to continue developing work skills. Students have completed a variety of projects, from stuffing calendars into plastic bags for the Borough of Chatham to customizing shopping bags for a florist shop. 

The schools have used Zoom to continue activities across classrooms and to include remote learners. Girl Scouts, clubs and after-school social events, such as dance parties and singalongs, help boost school spirit.

This inclusionary environment is important because about one-third of students are continuing with remote learning. They learn through a live video feed of the classroom teacher and on Zoom for related-services therapy sessions.

“In this hybrid model, we are proud to provide in-person instruction and related services to the maximum extent possible, while continuing remote learning at the highest quality for those students who cannot join us in school,” said Chatham School Principal Jason Killian. 

Given the choice of going back to school or remote learning, an overwhelming number of families sent their students back to the classroom. Killian was not surprised. “In-person instruction is critical to our students with special needs who thrive on routine, structure and direct access with teachers and therapists,” he said. 

Beth Freeman, whose daughter, Micayla, 10, has Down syndrome, agrees. “It has had an enormously positive impact for Micayla to go back to school,” she said. “Our kids with Down syndrome need in-person therapy, and they thrive on schedules. I was starting to see behavior changes and regression. Since going back, it’s been like night and day.”

Freeman has been impressed with how ECLC has handled the pandemic. Micayla transferred to the ECLC Chatham school last year, just four weeks before the COVID-19 lockdown. “Last March, they did a great job of pivoting from in-person to live Zoom classes and sending home packets,” she said. “They were really prepared.” 

Another parent, Eldy Pavon, understands the concerns of families who are keeping their children at home. Initially, she kept her son, Nico, out of school because she was worried about the risks of exposure. For the past year, they have done everything possible to keep the family safe, especially Nico, who is immunocompromised. “We basically don’t leave the house,” she said. “We don’t see anyone or have anyone over.”

So, when the Chatham school re-opened in September, she chose remote learning for Nico. “I wanted to see how things went,” she said. “And, they did a great job. By November, I felt comfortable sending him back to the school.” As an extra precaution, either she or her husband drive Nico from Westfield to the Chatham school.

Like many parents of children with special needs, she had noticed regression with Nico when he was out of school and those have disappeared. “Getting back to school is about more than academics. It’s really key to his emotional and social growth,” she said. “I am so grateful that he can see his friends again. Other districts should look at ECLC and follow in their footsteps — it’s been life changing for us!”

Nico is back in the classroom and loving it. “He’s like a totally different child. He’s very routine-oriented, and this puts him back into a routine,” said Pavon. “Plus, it gives us separation between family members. His younger sister is at home two days a week for her schooling; my husband is working from home. We were all on top of each other. This has relieved a lot of stress.”

The same is true for the Freeman family. When Micayla was learning remotely, there were challenges for her parents. “Her dad or I would need to monitor Micalaya during class and then work at night to make up for the lost time,” said Freeman. 

That’s no longer necessary with Micayla back at school. “She loves her teacher and comes home from school happy,” said Freeman. “When your child comes home laughing and smiling, it makes all the difference in the world. It makes you feel good.”  

About ECLC

In 2020, ECLC celebrated 50 years of offering “Education, Careers & Lifelong Community” to children and adults with special needs, including autism, Down syndrome and multiple disabilities.

The nonprofit was founded in 1970 as the Early Childhood Learning Centers of New Jersey to provide early-intervention services to a handful of pre-school children. 

Today, ECLC is an accredited, nonprofit with schools in Chatham and Ho-Ho-Kus, educating about 250 students, and additional programs serving more than 500 adult clients and ECLC school alumni.

ECLC offers transition and employment services through its affiliate, Community Personnel Services (CPS). CPS helps adults with disabilities find jobs in their communities and provides ongoing support and advocacy in the workplace.

Graduates who are not ready for the workplace can enter the PRIDE Adult Program, with centers in Florham Park and Paramus. More than 170 adults are enrolled in PRIDE, which is exclusively for ECLC alumni. Adults in PRIDE spend meaningful days in activities, volunteering in the community and continuing to learn and grow throughout adulthood. Learn more about ECLC.

COVID Can’t Cancel Work Skills Program

Usually, ECLC of New Jersey‘s students with special needs get hands-on work experience before graduating by job “sampling” in the community.

This school year, the pandemic brought on-site, job training to a halt, so, the Chatham school built an entirely new program to make sure Upper School students could continue developing their work skills.

“We are doing everything possible, within the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. Teachers have to be creative!,” said the Chatham School’s Work Skills Program Coordinator, Stacie Webber.

Webber is bringing work projects into the classroom for students to safely complete. They recently sorted pasta for the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges, which is playing an important role in supporting families and individuals facing food insecurity during this difficult time. They stuffed 2021 municipal calendars into plastic bags for the Borough of Chatham to deliver to residents. They completed a packaging job for the Veterans Hospital in Basking Ridge. And, they customized small shopping bags for Sunnywoods Florist! The school also hosts Zoom meetings with business owners as a guest speakers.

“They work on other jobs, too, such as making copies, taking virtual field trips to potential job sites, in-house shredding or more,” said Webber. “They came up with a mask-selling project for school families and staff. Students took charge of the entire sales and fulfillment process, from collecting orders and counting money to sorting orders and distributing them to each classroom.” 

Students learn job skills to help prepare them for life after graduation as part of what’s called the SKIL (Seeking Knowledge for Independent Living) Program.

Students customized paper bags for Sunnywoods Florist in Chatham Borough!

In pre-COVID days, Upper School students, ages 18-21, would take walking trips into downtown and ride the bus for field trips and work opportunities. However, this school year, they cannot go on any community outings because of the risks. Many of these students are especially vulnerable.

“SKIL is critical to the success of ECLC’s students, preparing them for life as adults and working in jobs, as they are able,” said Chatham School Principal Jason Killian. “We are grateful to business owners and other community members who have supported us in this difficult year by sending in work projects. Our students learn new skills and enjoy the wonderful feeling of success and pride in completing a work project!”

If you have a work opportunity for our students or want to participate as a guest speaker, please contact Principal Jason Killian by sending an e-mail to or calling 973-601-5410. Learn more about ECLC!

Tips for Celebrating a Safe Halloween

Don’t be scared to celebrate Halloween. As with most events taking place in 2020, Halloween can happen in-person or in a more virtual setting.

How you choose to celebrate likely depends on your individual circumstances, your town’s regulations and your overall comfort level.

Here are a few suggestions to help make it a more enjoyable experience!

In-Person Trick-or-Treating Tips: 

  • Wear a mask, if you are venturing out.
  • Plan ahead, and travel the routes or houses you plan to visit ahead of time.
  • Make a simple “map” of your route to help serve as a visual reminder and set expectations.
  • Be mindful of Halloween decorations that make noises or have visuals effects that may be triggering to your child’s sensory issues.
  • Highlight the importance of continuing to keep hands clean and maintain social distance from others when out in the neighborhood.

Virtual Celebration Ideas:

  • Hold a virtual Halloween party with a family and friends with everyone in costumes.
  • Go “trick-or-treating” in your own house; move from room to room with candy and treats at each doorway.
  • Plan to watch Halloween movies, and let each family member pick a favorite film. 
  • Pile into the car, and go for a tour of nearby homes that are decorated for Halloween.

Ho-Ho-Kus School Social Worker Cynthia Chaanine & Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA)  Matthew Kuzdral

Learn more at

Keeping Active in the August Break

Our school’s Extended School Year (ESY) is over, and keeping children busy during the month of August is no easy task. But, add in a pandemic, and we have even fewer ways to keep children entertained. 

Below are some fun and safe ways to keep children active, during these difficult times:

  • Online fitness for families and a list of sports programs. 
  • Kids entering pre-Kindergarten through 8th grade can explore animals, science and nature through the online Bronx Zoo Wildlife Camp 
  • Camp Sunshine is a structured program developed for young people between the ages of six to 21, with moderate to severe autism spectrum disorder or other special needs. Their multidisciplinary team of professionals oversees a creative and fun boy-843484_1920camp program designed to help each child reach his or her highest potential. 
  • Visit a petting farm from the comfort of your car or walk through it at Brookhollow’s Barnyard in Boonton. 
  • It is important to continue reading books for pleasure; visit Scholastic for ideas.
  • Epic offers access to hundreds of free books.
  • The SAG-AFTRA Foundation’s Daytime Emmy®-nominated and award-winning children’s literacy website, Storyline Online®, streams videos featuring celebrated actors reading children’s books, alongside creatively produced illustrations. Readers include Oprah Winfrey, Chris Pine, Kristen Bell, Rita Moreno, Viola Davis, Jaime Camil, Kevin Costner, Lily Tomlin, Sarah Silverman, Betty White, Wanda Sykes and dozens more.
  • Pinterest offers a ton of fun arts and crafts activities.

Getting Ahead of Back-to-School 

Lastly, try to spend a little time preparing your child for a return to school in September. Whether attending in-person or virtually, a review of expectations and changes will help them feel more at ease with the transition.

Practice and highlight the importance of wearing a mask, keeping a safe distance from their friends and teachers and washing their hands consistently.

Stay safe and healthy from the ECLC of New Jersey Ho-Ho-Kus school Staff!

By Cynthia Chaanine, LCSW, & Matthew Kuzdral, M.S., BCBA