Dec 12, 2011 • By

New York students win big

Any first-grade class has the potential for chaos, especially teacher Hilary Zablocki’s class. Hers is full of boys with special needs, and nearly all of them live below the poverty level.

Zablocki teaches at John D. Driscoll Elementary School, also known as PS 16, in Staten Island, New York.

“The special needs vary from emotional disturbance, severe learning disabilities, processing disorders, and autism,” Zablocki explains. “It’s challenging.”

Zablocki runs a very structured classroom. The daily routine doesn’t change; only the subject areas do. The boys always know what to expect, but that doesn’t always prevent the unexpected.

“It’s not easy to keep the emotional side from trying to take over the entire room,” says Zablocki. “I have to be pretty strong. If I let my guard down for one second, they take over the class, even though they’re in first grade!”

Ninety-three percent of the students at PS 16 live below the poverty level and are eligible for free lunch and after-school programs. Many of the kids can’t afford uniforms or school supplies. During the winter months, many of them wear donated coats, mittens and hats.

“The children are very needy,” says Zablocki. “In addition to the basics, they are always looking for somebody to praise them or notice how well they are doing.”

One thing first-graders at PS 16 have in common with first-graders almost everywhere else is technology in the classroom. It’s something Zablocki is passionate about.

“We do use a lot of technology in school. For example, the kids use smartboards. Occasionally, I’ll bring in my iPad. We’ll use it for educational apps, for sight words and a lot of repetition for math and things like that.”

School is the only place where some of Zablocki’s students are exposed to the latest technology, and they are about to get their small hands on a whole lot more of it.

Last week, the school received a $25,000 check for winning a national sweepstakes from General Mills’ Box Tops for Education program. More than 700,000 schools across the country entered the 2011 back-to-school “Building with Box Tops” online sweepstakes. However, it was Zablocki’s entry that was randomly selected. PS 16 plans to spend the money on laptops, iPads, iPods and other technology.

“I happened to be eating lunch when I read an email that said that I had won,” recalls Zablocki. “I ran downstairs to my principal’s office and made her read it. We both started jumping up and down. We couldn’t believe it!”

While the sweepstakes win is a big deal, Zablocki points out that it’s the little things that truly excite her.

“When a student knows one more word than they did the day before, that’s what keeps me coming back every day. That’s my job. That’s what I am here for.”

Editor’s Note: You can learn more about PS 16 and see a video interview with Hilary Zablocki here.

The Box Tops for Education program offers families easy, everyday ways to earn cash for their designated school. Collected Box Tops coupons are sent to General Mills, which sends the school a check, equivalent to 10 cents for each Box Top redeemed. For additional information, visit