What happens when the Jersey City Department of Special Education teams up with the Jersey City Free Public Library and outside stakeholders throughout the state?

The answer is everyone wins – and it sure is a lot of fun.

Jersey City Public Schools was honored with an exemplary recognition in the 2022 School Leader awards for its “Fun Fridays,” originally established in summer 2020 by Special Education Supervisor Candace Coccaro and her team.

Its goal was to promote academic achievement and bring joy to students, staff and parents amid the COVID-19 pandemic when schools had gone virtual, which had particularly negative effects for special education students.

“I would say that the pandemic definitely was the catalyst for the rigorous implementation of the program,” Coccaro said. “Depression and sadness permeated the lives of everyone, especially the children who missed their teachers, peers and school activities. Schools became ‘virtual’ overnight and lives were changed. All students were disproportionately affected by the new virtual learning platforms. I felt that students needed to have some fun integrated into their lives. Initially, Fun Friday was implemented weekly throughout the pandemic. Once students returned to school, Fun Friday became a monthly event.”

With Jersey City serving a large, urban multicultural community that includes students who don’t have the resources to venture out of the community at large, Fun Friday “bridges that gap,” Coccaro said. “Some students have been introduced to community and state resources that have been previously unknown to them,” she said. “These activities provide students with disabilities with an opportunity to integrate with their general education peers in both academics and fun. The activities are meaningful, and unlike some academic subjects, there is no risk of failure because the emphasis is on fun, fun, fun! They can share their experiences inside the school and in their home because many times their siblings are also attending. Families feel a part of the program, and the impact on children’s lives have been so positive.”

The virtual program had a wide reach, with more than 3,000 students attending  each week. To date, over 100,000 students have participated – and it was so successful that it continued into the 2021-2022 school year when students were back in the classroom.

The Jersey City Free Public Library uses grant funding to pay for guest speakers. “The beauty of this program is that it fosters community partnerships, introduces students to community resources, promotes social and emotional learning and lets special education students integrate with their general education peers in academic learning, STEM programming and fun activities,” Coccaro wrote. “Activities target all grade areas and link activities to the New Jersey Learning Standards. Each Fun Friday aligns with one of the nine content area goals.”

Fun Friday can also easily be replicated elsewhere, with minimal cost to districts, thus allowing students statewide to broaden their horizons, Coccaro said. 

 Fun Friday activities are centered around multicultural events celebrated worldwide. Past activities have highlighted Black History Month, Women’s History Month and Autism Awareness Month. 

Examples of activities have included:

Liberty Science Center “Physics Fun” Presentation: Students applied their knowledge of Sir Isaac Newton’s three laws of motion by studying movement and conducting different experiments.

Jenkinson Aquarium: The Pinelands National Reserve is home to many threatened and endangered species. Students met some of the animals that live in the reserve.

Robert J. Novins Planetarium: The immersive experience illustrated the role of the sun, atmosphere and weather on Earth, including a passing rainstorm. 

Lion Country Safari: Students got up close and personal with wildlife, learning all about rhinos and giraffes.

Coccaro was “beyond thrilled” to learn about the exemplary recognition in the School Leader awards. “This program was formed as a partnership with the Jersey City Public Library and has been funded by the library since its inception,” she said. “I consider it a shared honor with the members of the Fun Friday team, Kate Davis (JCFPL), Cara Van Note and Jennifer Valdora (JCPS). It could not be accomplished without their dedication, research and never-ending passion for providing quality educational experiences for the children of Jersey City.”

Coccaro noted that she has created many programs for the district in her role as a special education supervisor. She added, “I was hoping that Fun Friday would be well received and that the Jersey City Public Library would continue its partnership and funding. The feedback was so positive, beyond our expectations, and the students were so joyful, that I knew that I would spare no effort to continue it. As a new director in the district for Student Life and Services, I am excited about providing more of these opportunities for our students. The Jersey City Free Public Library has been an amazing partner, and we are so lucky we have been afforded the opportunity to work with them.” 

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.