On Wednesday, Nick Sordillo of Chatham donned a cap and gown and walked in the graduation ceremony at ECLC of New Jersey’s Chatham school for students with special needs.

However, instead of receiving a diploma, he eagerly accepted an attendance certificate. Sordillo, like about half his classmates, is not leaving school just yet.

Nick Sordillo is among students who are staying in school for an additional year.
Nick Sordillo is among students who are staying in school for an additional year.

Thanks to a bipartisan bill signed by Gov. Murphy earlier this month, special-ed students like Nick are allowed to stay in school for another year to make up for lost learning during the pandemic.

Parents say it is a much-needed extension. “It would have been too much of a change for him,” said his mom, Nancy Sordillo. “Because of COVID, he didn’t get the social interaction to build up his confidence or the work experience students usually have in their last year.”

This past school year with workplaces shut down or closely restricted, ECLC’s special-ed students missed out on “job sampling” to see what type of work they would like to pursue as adult.

Starting this coming September, students will once again be allowed to venture off-campus to explore jobs and learn new skills. In addition, the transition team at ECLC’s affiliate, Community Personnel Services (CPS), will coordinate visits to adult day programs, including ECLC’s Pride Center.

“This extra year gives us an opportunity to figure out his future,” said Nancy Sordillo. “The smoother the transition, the better for him.”

Not all students are taking advantage of the extra year. Classmate James Droggitis of Mountain Lakes is off to a new start at Chapel Haven in Connecticut, a school for adults with disabilities. His mother, Layna Kearns, says James watched as his brother and sister left home for college, and he is determined to follow the same path.

“He knew exactly what he wanted to do next, “ she said. “He said ‘I want to move on with my life; I want to move out.’ “There was a lot of uncertainty, but we really couldn’t deny him the opportunity.”

The first year at Chapel Haven focuses on independent living skills, budgeting, cooking, shopping and health and safety. During the second year, the program widens to include using public transportation and working at job sites, plus more nighttime activities. There is an optional third year.

“He will get the residential experience, like going to college, with education that’s relevant to him,” said Kearns. “It’s supervised, but independent. We all are thrilled that he’s going. But, as a mom, it’s hard.”

Another 2021 grad, Summer Stout of Toms River, is going to college. She has big dreams of Broadway, but for the meantime will enroll at the College of New Jersey (TCNJ)’s Career and Community Studies Program. This four-year program for students with special needs will prepare her to shine on a smaller stage: working in child care.

Summer likes to put on a show. She has has taken instrument and voice lessons for years and performed with local groups. She plays guitar, piano and violin. Her dance moves range from tap to ballet, and she enjoys acting, too.

She won a scholarship to attend TCNJ after teacher Jamie Willard encouraged her to apply. She will live on campus in a special dorm and have a campus buddy to offer assistance. Many of these mentors are students studying special education in the general education program.

Reflecting back on her years at ECLC, her mom said, “All the staff has been very good to her. They really prepared her for this next step!”