Independence Hall
 Warren Hills Middle School students visit Independence Hall as part of a program paid for by a Hipp grant.
As educators, we understand that the major reason we choose to become a teachers is because adults with vision and passion took an interest in us. Teachers, administrators, even school board members, challenged and supported us so that we were able to succeed.

Three years ago, we realized that the students in our self-contained learning and behavioral disabilities special education classes at Warren Hills Middle School needed to develop appropriate social and life skills. As their teachers, we knew our students had great potential but were struggling each day to act appropriately and achieve academic success. We decided that the best way to help our students was to work collaboratively and find a way to turn our classes into a community.

In 2011, we applied for and received our first NJEA Frederick L Hipp Foundation grant. With the $6,896 we received, we would create real life opportunities to help our students learn what it means to be a good citizen. We hoped that by giving our students these experiences, we could create a school community that would result in greater academic and behavioral success.

Discovering citizenship through personal inquiry and experience

We started by inviting parents to a breakfast meeting in July to learn about the project timeline and activities. A few days later we were on a school bus with our students traveling to Seneca Falls, New York.

 Peter Mott House painting
 A student views renovations to the Peter Mott House, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
“What does it mean to break a barrier?” we asked, as we approached the birthplace of the American Women’s Suffrage Movement. We would ask this question again as we traveled to the Peter Mott House in Camden County, a stop on The Underground Railroad, and on our way to Philadelphia and the National Constitution Center.

After each trip, our students came together to make a canvas “quilt” to showcase what they learned. The experiences made history come to life in a way no textbook or website ever could. They also created beautiful multimedia paintings that resemble stain glass windows. Each window celebrated the trip and communicated what students learned about our history. Learning about diversity, inclusion, and the struggles that many faced for equality is a wonderful way for students to develop a sense of community. They made the connection that treating their peers with dignity and respect, no matter how they were different, leads to a better environment for all involved in a community.

These experiences had such a positive impact, we applied for and received a Hipp Foundation continuation grant. So last summer, these same students were asked to define what it means to be a responsible citizen at all levels of government. To answer this question, students traveled to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and the State House in Trenton. They took pictures, wrote their observations, and spoke to local and state officials as they developed their own definition of what it means to be a responsible citizen.

Then we gave them the opportunity to actually be responsible citizens by initiating a beach clean up at Gateway National Park on the New Jersey coast and by hosting a school-wide litter clean up. This event was featured on a segment of “Classroom Close-up, NJ.” (To view the segment, go to Classroom Close-up, NJ, click on the Video Library icon, and search for “Discovering Citizenship.”)

The learning has continued this school year as students were treated to a question-and-answer session with Congressman Scott Garrett when he visited Warren Hills Middle School. Students with and without disabilities came together to ask him questions about the federal government and what it means to be a responsible citizen.

 Litter Clean-up
 To practice good citizenship, students participated in a school-wide litter clean up.
The Hipp grant will again provide the funds for our students to travel to the State House in Trenton where they will be able to see where and how the legislative process works in New Jersey.

Building a classroom community

From the beginning of this process our mission has been to give our students hands-on, real-life experiences that teach them social skills and citizenship. We wanted to build a better classroom community. We wanted our students to be successful in school with the understanding that caring for themselves and others leads to success.

Because of the grant, we were able to provide opportunities for our students to take ownership of their definition of citizenship and apply the meaning to various activities on a state and local level. In addition, students were given the opportunity to create and take pride in a very intricate and involved art project that they developed from start to finish. That project is now on display in our school’s library for all stakeholders to see. When students look at what they have accomplished, they feel a sense of pride and take ownership for that project.

Finally, the students have also been able to recognize that it sometimes takes a struggle to reach a goal. It may also involve risk-taking and bravery to make dreams into a reality. But knowing what others have overcome will help them to face these challenges.

All of these lessons have made these young people into better students and better people. They are more excited to come to school and take pride in helping each other. They speak in more respectful tones, not only to their teachers, but to each other, and they work hard to maintain a clean and orderly classroom. The students have learned to take ownership of their learning and better care of their surroundings.

All because of a Hipp grant

Far too often many great ideas never become reality for students because of budget constraints, fear of taking a risk, and/or the lack of time. But student needs should transcend these and any other obstacle. The Hipp Foundation grant helped us make our vision a reality for seventh and eighth graders at Warren Hills Regional Middle School.

Teaching students to truly be about something bigger than themselves coupled with real world experiences have lead our students to truly change the world. Partnering with the Hipp Foundation gave us the support we needed to teach more than the required curriculum and to empower our students to make the world a better place.

In the end, we received so much more than money from the NJEA Fredrick L. Hipp Foundation. We were given a chance to do something great for our students so they could then in turn, do something even greater. We invite you to visit our community and see what these young people are doing.

Jessica Rader has been a special education teacher in the Warren Hills Regional School District since 2006. She is a recipient of the N.J. School Boards Association and ASAH Innovations in Special Education Award and earned a citation from the State Assembly Citation for the Hipp grant program. Rader can be reached at raderj@warrenhills.org.

Daniel E. Diveny teaches art and has been at Warren Hills Regional Middle School since1992. He was the named the Middle School’s Teacher of the Year in 2002. Contact Diveny at divenyd@warrenhills.org.

Daniel Cullen now works as the assistant principal in the Stillwater Township Elementary School. While in Warren Hills he was named the 2012 New Jersey Council for Exceptional Children State Teacher of the Year and the 2013 Warren County Teacher of the Year. Cullen also received a 2013 Smart Technologies Teaching Excellence Award. He can be reached at daniel.cullen@stillwaterschool.net.