Annual Leadership Conference








Lorraine Slama

& Julie Hickey




Educator of the Year

Lorraine Slama

The Benedictine School

Ridgeley, MD


Lorraine has worked as a special educator at The Benedictine School for 29 years. She has honed her skills through her love of life-long learning. These skills include certification as a recreation therapist, Health and Healing including sensory knowledge, and academics. She brings her knowledge from each of these areas into our school program. She has developed relaxation programs such as Tai Chi instruction, the use of natural oils, and individualized    sensory programs. Recreation programs implemented in her classroom have included photography, juggling, and performing arts. She readily shares these skills with everyone – even those outside of her classroom. In her years as a teacher she has volunteered her time in the community by sharing her knowledge at local colleges and other professional groups. She has maintained contact with students post-graduation, offering guidance and mentorship on her own time. Lorraine’s passion is to benefit students and adults with special needs, and she works tirelessly to do it.


One of the things Lorraine is most known for at our school is her creation and running of Healthy Way Café – a Café offering lunch and snack options prepared by students for purchase by both staff and students. This  academic and vocational program was started through a small grant as a summer program. It provides an opportunity for students to work on food preparation and food service while addressing academic skills such as money math and reading of informational texts and vocational goals and objectives such as following work directions and remaining on task. It was so successful in its first summer building on student skills in both areas that it has continued for 15 years. It is appreciated by so many staff in our rural community with limited restaurant options and it has even expanded into catering for special visitors, board meetings, and events at our school. So not only does it  benefit students, but it benefits the school community as a whole.


Another area of innovation in programming is her creation of a Photography Club, giving students with significant disabilities an appropriate creative outlet. That program involved an annual art show at a local art     gallery and led to one student taking photography classes at the local community college – an impressive          accomplishment for our certificate-track students.


Lorraine shares her passions with the students. Her love of the outdoors led her to begin a tradition of an annual camping trip. Each fall she spends 3 days camping with a group of students. This is an opportunity many of them never would have without her. They partake in usual camping activities – setting up camp, cooking and cleaning up, exploring nature, learning to socialize. Lorraine not only gives of her time to plan and coordinate this trip. But she gives of her own resources, sharing camping equipment and purchasing supplies herself. The trip is a highlight for so many students.


Lorraine’s mind is constantly working to think of new ideas to meet our students’ needs. Lessons are creative and utilize technology and community learning. Behavior programs are exciting for students and are shared in their residential or home settings to offer consistency across settings. She enthusiastically works to better our program as a whole and individually for students. Lorraine’s impact on our students is tremendous. It is easy to see this in her own prepare for the day and to help her students transition into a successful school day. But it is also quite evident school-wide. She serves as a teaching assistant principal so is responsible for educational reports and teacher support. She serves as both a formal and informal mentor to new teachers. She welcomes students from other classes into hers for special activities, often becoming a preferred staff for them. She welcomes students from other schools to our program to provide our students with interaction with non-disabled peers and to provide students from other schools with an opportunity to help and learn.   

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Benway attendees - Matthew Bijas,

Danielle & Jim Bourne - accept award on Ms. Sblendorio's behalf


Educator of the Year

Jani Sblendorio

Benway School

Wayne, NJ


At Benway School we are extremely proud to employ someone as passionate, caring,  hardworking, and selfless as Jani Sblendorio. Her experience working in a variety of public and private school settings and with learners from Pre-K to adult has provided our school with the ability to utilize her skills in all settings and with any of our diverse students. Ms. Jani is an educator who goes above and beyond the normal classroom experience to improve the lives of those with special needs as well as their families. She is a Teacher Of Students with Disabilities, Certified Autism Specialist, Family and Consumer Science Teacher (NJ DOE application pending), as well as  having experience as an  ABA Therapist/Support Care Coordinator.

Jani immerses herself in organizations that help students with disabilities and their families. She has worked with Autism NJ for 15 years and, for her efforts, was recognized as the “Community Service Provider of the Year Award Winner 2009.” But that work was not enough as she became the founder of the 501c3 organization United By Autism which serves individuals, families, and educators on a journey with autism. This strong passion for   educating families and advocating for those with disabilities stems from Jani’s 23 years of experience as a parent of a son with significant special needs.


 Jani continually strives to educate herself and learn cutting edge ways to provide her students with success. In fact she had over 250 hours of professional development last year. She established an elementary program for our  students including the development of curriculum, creation of interactive S.T.E.M. projects, and class   participation in numerous fundraising events throughout last year for numerous causes. Most recently, Jani       designed a fashion curriculum for learners who may want a career in the industry. She will use the 15 years of skills she developed in the field to share success with learners striving to find their way.  She also is completing her Masters in Curriculum and Instruction from UMASS with a July 2018 graduation date. All of these combined   actions led to Jani being recognized by the National Association of Special Education Teachers, NASET, as the 2016-2017 recipient of their “Exemplary Service” award.

Her own family’s ability to advocate for a special needs son and her work through her nonprofit provides another level of support to special needs families as she has and continues to walk in their shoes. She takes her students’ success personally and collaborates with the in house team, families, and their extended care givers at all times. Jani tries to get to the root of our student’s interest. This year they are already planning a year-long project to   support the ASPCA and a local animal rescue. This is tied into the work they are doing to support animal rescues in relation to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. Her class also paired with Full Sail University to have college day for her 5th/6th grade students to explore careers in film and game development.  Her classroom provides flexible seating options, choices in curriculum by subject, and is continually adapting to the significant behavioral, social, and cognitive issues that her students face.

Jani combines this approach with an interactive feedback system called Class Dojo. Students are aware of their progress throughout the day in a fun way, while also allowing parents to track their child’s progress online. She believes this type of constant feedback with the children and their parents is crucial for development.
Jani looks beyond regular methods of teaching and seeks to use programs that give students a more immersive way of learning.

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Michelle Smargisso

& Christine Robinson


Direct Care worker of the Year

Michelle Smargisso

Kingsway Learning Center

Haddonfield, NJ


Candi Smargisso has been an employee of Kingsway Learning Center since 2008, and during that time she has been an integral part in our students’ success as a 1:1 Aide, a Teacher Assistant and a Job Coach. Demonstrating an immediate understanding of the population we serve, Candi has continued to develop her expertise in the field through her participation in a wide variety of school activities.


Candi, a trained chef who is Safe Serve certified, assumed a leadership position in our restaurant training career center as a Teacher Assistant. Her efforts, in coordination with teaching and related services staff, facilitated student learning in all aspects of the restaurant industry including nutrition, menu planning, and especially the hands-on skill sets of both fast and fine food preparation.


Following up her highly successful time in this area, Candi moved into a Job Coach role as a way to enhance student opportunities in this career cluster in community based job placements. This engagement went so well, that she was then tapped to be the Kingsway representative in the development of a new food service in the community that provided a myriad of opportunities for our students to be involved with a public service organization. In addition to typical job coach responsibilities, Candi is also responsible for planning the monthly food menu, ordering the food on a weekly basis as well as ensuring that all food items are prepared under sanitary conditions in a timely manner each calendar day.


When asked, Candi approaches new roles as a challenge, always thinking of how she could facilitate meaningful and realistic individualized instruction for her students. In addition to teaching generalized "soft skills" (i.e.- seeking clarification, listening and responding appropriately to constructive critique), she also emphasizes functional independent living skills through her job sites that the students can apply to their lives outside of Kingsway.


Candi has stated that working with children with disabilities and helping them learn social skills, academics and enrichment is the path she wants to take in life. Her actions make that clear every single day she steps foot into Kingsway’s schools. Her experience working with children with disabilities is more than the act of teaching – it’s also about the gifts she can share with the children and the gifts they can share with her.


Teaching has always been at the center of Candi’s thoughts of a rewarding career. Her own two children have greatly fulfilled that desire in her life and she enjoys raising them with great love, joy and a full heart. With her children now in school full-time, Candi extends herself and shares her life with yet more children inside Kingsway halls who continue to inspire her and fulfill her desire to teach.


Candi was also responsible for bringing in local theater productions from Resurrection Catholic School in Cherry Hill. Last year, the group performed “The Music Man,” and “High School Musical,” at Kingsway’s Moorestown Campus.  

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Sean Murphy

& Donna Kelly


Related Service Provider of the Year

Donna Kelly

The Matheny School

Peapack, NJ


Donna Kelly, OTR, was selected by the Matheny School administrative staff as the NAPSEC Related Service Provider of the Year because of her ongoing commitment, advocacy, creativity and innovation in supporting and meeting the needs of those with special needs both in our school and in the community. Her work in the field is both unique and valuable to those she serves. Donna has been in the field for 35 years and at Matheny for 7 years.


In the school Donna is the moving force behind the occupational therapy department with close collaboration with the other therapies, classroom staff, families and the facility rehabilitation department. As the department head, Donna provides guidance and training to the other occupational therapists as well as carrying a student caseload in the school. When joining the school team she established the standard of working with the students in the school, home and community settings. She and her team provide the necessary tools to the families in identifying what they need to support their children at home as well as hands on trainings to promote skills and independence. She encourages the therapists across disciplines to attend neurodevelopmental training (NDT).


Donna then implemented a cross-disciplinary treatment for students using NDT techniques. She established the protocol for and holds switch clinics, across disciples, to identify the most ideal switch access for our students. She updated our school’s splinting capabilities, setting up a splinting clinic for the fabrication of functional splints for school and home use. Donna inspires others to create adaptations to allow our students the greatest independence through adaptive equipment, assistive technology, and therapeutic handling. Developing and holding switch clinics, splinting clinics, and neurodevelopmental treatment sessions allows team members to work together with the students as a collaborative force. The team members can then carry these techniques and adaptive equipment into their treatment sessions and more importantly into the classroom. Even simple modifications created by Donna, such as an adaptive splint to hold a crayon/marker/or stylist, allows a child to participate more fully in their educational and life experiences. She gives others the motivation to create, even when there is nothing in a catalog, in order to allow the student to experience some freedom and independence whether in transition class, prevocational training in the community, in physical education, or being able to turn the pages of a story about their day at school with a Hook and an iPad app connected to a switch.


Donna is creative and a solution finder never letting an obstacle whether physical or financial get in the way of a solution. Donna works tirelessly with the student’s treatment team in identifying equipment, solutions, and training needs.


Once identified she successfully seeks out the means to meet the goal through identifying stakeholders, setting times for training, and grant writing for specific equipment needs. Some of the grants Donna has sought out and received include. Grant Recipient for the Disability Rights of New Jersey for $15,000 for assistive technology and the beginning of an assistive technology loan program; Friends of Matheny for adaptive equipment and supplies, local community persons/agencies to fund technology and adaptations. Donna does trainings on “adaptive functional splinting” for Matheny occupational therapists and community therapists. She does environmental evaluations for home and community settings.   

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Dr. Greg Zink, Linda McHugh

& Thomas Osorio


award for Leadership & Innovation

in Special education

The Sustainability In The Classroom Initiative

Archbishop Damiano School

Westville Grove, NJ


Archbishop Damiano School is an approved private school for students with disabilities. Our 156 students’ cognitive skills fall within the moderate to severe range of disability.


The Sustainability In the Classroom initiative allows students to master skills aligned with New Jersey’s Core Curriculum Content Standards in Mathematics, English Language Arts, Social Studies and Life Science. The goal of the program has always been to learn by doing. The initiative is a recipient of the 2017 NJ School Boards Association’s Innovations in Special Education Award.


The initiative came about as we searched for activities that supported the emerging core curriculum science   standards in the mid-2000s. As with most of our pilot programs, Sustainability In the Classroom began modestly when Archbishop Daminao School created a small butterfly garden to support our participation in the Monarch Watch’s Waystation program. Students learned about the life cycle of the monarch butterfly, the care of the young butterfly bushes and the geography associated with the monarch butterflies’ migratory path. The now fully mature butterfly garden has been recognized as an official Monarch Watch Waystation.


Over the next two years the butterfly garden was expanded to a fully functioning outdoor garden. Funding was secured through grants totaling $5,400.00 from The Mantis Corporation, ING Unsung Hero Award, American Gardening Association, Project Learning Tree, East Coast Vulture Festival, and Hooked on Hydroponics. Besides expansion of the outdoor garden the grands allowed the purchase of indoor grow stations and hydroponics station which were added to the newly opened science room. Students were able to experience first-hand the life cycle of common flowers and vegetables. Students started plants in the grow labs, cared for them, and then transplanted them to raised beds in the outside garden. Students with soil sensitivities were still able to participate in the    growing process through the hydroponics lab. Integrated into these life science activities were math skills (measurement and counting) and English Language Arts Skills (reading with icon support and following  directions).


In 2008 Archbishop Damiano formalized the Sustainability In the Classroom pilot into a horticulture program for our middle/high school students and founded the first chartered 4-H Club for students with disabilities in NJ. Where grant funds allowed for program expansion, Archbishop Damiano School funds provide for the continuing cost of implementing the program.


Additional grants followed from The Schiller Corporation, AeroGrow, and Rutgers Cooperative Extension. The program was made possible with the support of a dedicated group of volunteers and the donated services of certified Master Gardeners from the Gloucester County Agricultural Extension of Rutgers University. Since the inception of the program students have: Used natural materials grown in the gardens to create unique Christmas tree decorations which have been displayed at both Longwood Gardens (PA) and the James and Ann Whitall House at Red Bank Battlefield Park (NJ); Learned about ecological system through the creation of terrariums; Continued learning about plant growth and care while raising plants for our annual plant sale whose profits go back into the program and/or are donated to a community charity chosen by the students; Experience the life   cycle of fish, birds and insects while learning about biology and ecology; Developed communication and letter writing through interacting with other participating schools; Created individual cloth squares reflective of their  experience that are incorporated into the annual Trout Quilt; Learned the basics of hydroponics and aquaculture; Grown vegetables which have been used in the school’s wellness program/donated to a local food bank;  Developed social skills in working with NJ Master Gardener, horticulture volunteers, business representatives and community groups that have supported the horticulture and 4-H programs. Most importantly, students have experienced learning as fun while developing valuable life-long skills.


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Dr. Dorothy Van Horn

& Patrick Thomas Kiernan







award for Leadership & Innovation

in Special education

Reading to the Rescued

Brookfield Academy

Cherry Hill, NJ


Brookfield Academy is an approved private school for emotionally and socially challenged students grades 9-12 serving students in South Jersey. The school houses approximately 60 students in its high school as well as 50 in the elementary school and many others in the various off campus programs that we are involved in.


Reading to the Rescued was an idea that stemmed out of the need to increase student confidence in reading and speaking orally in front of others. The idea for the program came from looking for a means to get our students in front of a nonjudgmental audience and have them practice their reading and speaking skills.


Animals are a great way to get the students interested in participating in the program and we just needed a partner. I reached out to the Camden County Animal Shelter during the summer of 2016 and they were excited about the

opportunity to work with Brookfield Schools.


Since the beginning of the school year, “Reading to the Rescued” happens twice a month as designed. This program is one where our students at the high school, pair with students from the elementary school and travel to the Camden County Animal Shelter to read to the dogs housed there. Dogs, being nonjudgmental about the     quality or challenges of the students reading ability, has the students grow in confidence with their ability to read out loud and has garnished political and media attention for its success. This innovative program is now one that has gained attention from other schools and shelters as well.


Recently, the shelter hosted a media day for our program to highlight the successes of our students. Students spoke to both TV and Radio hosts as well as being interviewed by the print media. This major accomplishment for our students to have the composure to speak, and then read, in this spotlight reinforces that the program was a great idea for our population and assures a continued relationship between the shelter and Brookfield Schools moving forward


Understanding that a picture is worth a thousand words, I give you several that show how powerful this program has been for our students and school. This program has truly been amazing for our school.


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Dr. Bruce Ettinger &

Tom Dempsey,

NAPSEC President





award for Leadership & Innovation

in Special education



Livingston, NJ


When Program Director David Di Ianni created FilmAcademy360, a part of Spectrum360 in Livingston, NJ, he was interested in teaching students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) “high value skills for high value work.” Meaning that with appropriate training and skill development, the young adults in the program could someday  attain work that is both stimulating and well paid. Students with ASD have completed the FilmAcademy360     program in advanced video editing with great success, opening doors to future professional opportunities.


The FilmAcademy360 program has three phases, beginning with introducing students to theoretical concepts of editing and basic filmmaking. Students, who visit the studio twice a week, learned things like thinking in shots and understanding the progression of shots as a basis for visual storytelling media. Di Ianni says understanding this cinematic language is “…a necessary skill for all filmmakers and digital storytellers.”


Phase two of the program includes the teaching of Adobe Premiere professional editing software. A major goal of the FilmAcademy360 program was for students to gain proficiency in 10 categories of skills using the software, demonstrated through a score of 80% or higher on assessments.


After realizing the students were very visual learners, they adapted the text-heavy Adobe Premiere curriculum and added video lessons. The video curriculum, in conjunction with their in-person classroom instruction, helped all seven students pass the skills assessments, several with perfect scores.


The third phase of the program exposed students to a professional work environment, both at the FilmAcademy360 production studio and at nearby Elm City Communications. The young adults were encouraged to develop relationships with outside producers, hopefully leading to future work opportunities. Students created their own professional showreel to submit to potential employers, along with a resume and profiles on websites like Upwork and Freelancer.com. Instructors also worked closely with the students on verbal and nonverbal communication skills, using video recordings as a learning tool.


FilmAcademy360 continues to support the professional development of all participating students. “We have an open door policy to support these students,” Di Ianni says, “If they get a freelance gig, they can come into our  studio and do the work here. We intend to support their future progress to whatever degree we can.”


Career Readiness: Work opportunities in the high-value area of video and digital media production; Students have demonstrated proficient and demonstrable technical skills on the Adobe software suite through hands-on assessments; Students have completed portfolios and built professional resumes through work in our production studio;

Students have had opportunities to meet top industry professionals, including Executive Producer at PBS and   editor at Pixar/Disney.


Social Communication Skills: Due to the curriculum and instruction of FilmAcademy360, school staff and parents have observed notable increased ability in students verbal communication through clearer, less affected and more modulated speech; Increased eye contact; Assertive posture; and Observed self-confidence.


As a result of these observations we piloted a study with the coordination of Peter Gerhardt, PhD, Megan Maguire BCBA and David Di Ianni, Program Director, MS. The pilot study showed a statistically significant improvement in the above areas as a result of the curriculum and instruction of the program of FilmAcademy360. We plan to repeat this study on a larger scale and publish the results. The results of the current study are available on request.


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award for Leadership & Innovation

in Special education

Virtual Connections Academy

Virtual Connections Academy

Palatine, IL


Virtual Connections Academy was founded by Tom Dempsey, Tanya Guild, Betty Lindquist and Sol Rappaport in the fall of 2016. Students have been identified with school anxiety, being medically fragile or having other   emotional disabilities which have interfered with school attendance, VCA provides instruction and therapy to students who would otherwise not be educated. The students have usually been at risk for enrollment in a more restrictive program due to attendance issues. Thus, VCA represents a new point on the continuum of services for children with disabilities in the Chicago metropolitan area.


Using small classes students are instructed in a full core curriculum in a blended digital learning, in-home and classroom environment. As the students make progress, they are able to come to a conventional classroom  environment more often and eventually transition into a brick and mortar school, either private or their own public school.


What separates this school from other virtual learning programs is the provision of all related services including counseling, family counseling, speech, occupational therapy, art and music as well as transition services for  middle and high school students. There is intensive case management between teachers, therapists, related service providers and administrators to help the students overcome their challenges and attend school. Services are    provided through virtual interactions, in home and community visits as well as attendance in a conventional school building.


Teachers create lessons through video lectures, flipped classroom techniques and technology based forums. The staff make home visits to ensure that students are engaging in the general curriculum. Teachers and students   interact through video conferencing, discussion boards both in groups and individually. Staffings with the placing public schools are more frequent (every three months) to ensure that the students are making progress towards conventional attendance.


VCA worked extensively with the Illinois State Board of Education to make sure that the school adheres to state and federal laws related to distance learning and that individual student needs for supervision and support are provided. There were intensive discussions with ISBE administration, legal and special education program staff about the content of this innovative program. The need for the program came from analysis of outcome data from our other therapeutic schools showing that some students could not develop regular attendance even in a seperate setting. VCA is fully approved by ISBE and tuition costs are paid entirely by the school districts. It is the only school of its type in the state.


VCA provides the technology (both devices and internet access) needed for distance learning, ensuring that there are no economic barriers to an appropriate education. There is extensive data collection to verify that students are meeting instructional time as well as progressing overall.


Student outcomes have been excellent. Several students have graduated high school or transitioned to attendance in a conventional school building. Most students have moved from in home distance learning only to coming to school on a scheduled basis. While all students are considered at risk for a more restrictive placement (hospital or residential) to date, no students have left the program to a more restrictive setting.


Virtual Connections Academy started as an answer to the growing need for services for children identified with school anxiety, being medically fragile, or experiencing social difficulties which preclude them from attending school. Our partner school districts told us that school refusal was their biggest problem and unmet need.


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National Commission for the Accreditation

of Special Education Services



Phoenix, AZ


Recognized for receiving NCASES Accreditation.



National Commission for the Accreditation

of Special Education Services


The Benedictine School

Ridgeley, MD


Recognized for receiving NCASES Accreditation.


National Commission for the Accreditation

of Special Education Services


Kennedy Krieger School Programs

 Greenspring Campus - High School

Greenspring - LEAP

Montgomery County Campus


Recognized for receiving NCASES Accreditation.




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Private early intervention services, schools, residential therapeutic centers, and adult living programs serving individuals with disabilities and their families since 1971


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