This hasn’t been a traditional summer for the students, administrators, and staff of New Jersey’s eight county special services school districts. But, with the help of technology, the districts have maintained some summer traditions through Extended School Year (ESY) programming that allows for personalized learning and supports – with a lot of fun and adventure mixed in.

The New Jersey Joint Council of Special Services School Districts, representing all eight county special services districts, joined with the Educational Services Commission of New Jersey (ESCNJ), South Bergen Jointure Commission, and Morris-Union Jointure Commission to announce early in the summer the decision to remain fully remote for their ESY programs. The announcement was driven by their collective concern for the health of both students and staff. They did not want to be the test case for the reopening of New Jersey’s schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Building on lessons learned from the transition to remote learning in the spring, the county special services districts found ways to engage students and their families throughout the summer to support learning and development.

The change in format didn’t change the fact that there was much to celebrate this summer:

Burlington County Special Services School District teachers regularly planned live virtual sessions, during which they introduced new lessons designed for an online learning environment. Maureen Graven-Eells, a physical education teacher, remarked that the experience reminded her “that we are all learners at all times.” She said that she shared ideas with her colleagues not only at BCSSSD, but around the country, noting that “this is where educators shine brightest; they share and care!”

Robert Wyllner (left), a teacher on the BCSSSD Transition Campus, covered one of the district’s new programs called Digitability, which is an innovative and comprehensive work-ready program empowering students with autism or other cognitive disabilities to graduate with a skills-based portfolio and the ability to self-advocate. Music teacher Tom Cook (right) taught his students about instruments and vibrations while integrating English Language Arts (ELA) into his class with read-alouds at the end of their sessions.

BCSSSD teachers lead virtual sessions with their students through platforms like Zoom, which enabled students to use technology while learning about musical instruments and other interesting lessons.

Mercer County Special Services School District also introduced new and creative learning opportunities for their students, and like many of the other districts, developed summer lessons around themes. Mercer High School’s “summer travels” curriculum featured a virtual campfire show with songs, stories, chants, and poems by retired Food Service teacher, Greg Pontier (left). At Mercer Elementary School, a committee of staff members developed lesson plans focusing on people with careers that help to keep the world safe and healthy. Virtual assemblies featured the Robbinsville Police Department, the Trenton Fire Department (right), and a local crop farmer. Virtual dances and cooking club gatherings also allowed students to interact with one another.

Virtual assemblies allowed students at MCSSSD to meet people with careers that help people keep the world safe and healthy, like a local police officer, firefighter, and farmer.

Thematic learning also ensued at MCSSSD’s Joseph F. Cappello School, where students embarked on virtual field trips to places like the Goats of Anarchy, a sanctuary for baby goats with special needs, and the Center for Aquatics, focusing on learning about animals and ecosystems along the way.

MCSSSD elementary students and staff smile for a picture with their pets and stuffed animals as they learned about animals through virtual field trips to a sanctuary for baby goats with special needs.

In addition to using online resources such as Class Dojo, APEX, and TeachTown, Cape May County Special Services School District empowered students to take on self-directed learning activities before logging on to share their experiences. The district distributed health and wellness kits to all students to help them practice good hygiene in preparation for their return to school in the fall. Also, more than 40 students, including Ian Thomson (below), opted to receive pizza kits, which provided an outlet for family collaboration, communication and an overall boost to mental health for those who participated

CMCSSSD student, Ian Thomas, proudly displays the pizza he made from a kit distributed to students by the school to give them a family activity to participate in that helped them with communication and life skills.

Salem County Special Services School District students at the Daretown School also honed their culinary skills – while practicing measurement – through Tracy Parente’s virtual cooking class. Students in sixth and seventh grades learned to make French toast, eggs (left), and peach cobbler (right). Yum!

SCSSSD students learned how to cook while practicing measurements in a virtual cooking class where they made French toast, scrambled eggs, and peach cobbler.

All students in the Daretown School’s virtual ESY program took part in daily art, English, reading, math, and science classes on Google Meet; worked on assignments posted in Google Classroom; and participated in programs through a range of online platforms. In fact, just 20 students completed a total of 50,000 math questions on IXL this summer. The smiling faces of enthusiastic young learners Chance DelGrippo (left) and his brother Naideem DelGrippo (right) are just two of the school’s dedicated learners.

SCSSSD young learners, Chance DelGrippo and his brother Naideem DelGrippo smile while seated in front of their laptops, which they used to work on assignments.

On SCSSSD’s Cumberland Campus, ESY was held virtually from July 20th until August 21st.  In preparation for the summer program, teachers and staff developed creative and fun lessons and activities centered around a common theme.  Older students participated in camping-related activities, including going on virtual field trips, making S’mores, reading, and constructing animal pictures and crafts. In the pictures below, Zach is showing his enjoyment with the Pretzel Project, and students Yadira and Jefferson proudly show off the art they created.  In Room 109, students also worked on a pumpkin project in which, starting as a seed, they virtually followed the plant’s growth from seed, to pumpkin, to carved pumpkin (and all the steps along the way!)  At the end of ESY, families and staff reported that students had a great experience!

SCSSSD students proudly display the projects they worked on this summer, which included drawings, pretzel making, and watching a pumpkin grow from a seed that was then carved by their teacher while they watched online.

Gloucester County Special Services School District kept in touch with students both virtually and through more traditional channels of communication. Joann Walton, a special education teacher at the district’s Bankbridge Development Center, and her colleagues sent personalized letters to their students, along with stickers, snacks and notes of encouragement. One family expressed its gratitude by making a display of the notes and cards (below).

GCSSSD teachers sent personalized letters and notes of encouragement to students, which one family proudly displayed by taping them all to a wall.

Bergen County Special Services School District’s Brownstone School also aimed to personalize students’ learning experiences. The school enrolled 53 students in its summer ESY program, with seven classes fully staffed with teachers, teacher assistants, and a 1:1 aide.  Each class explored the solar system, tying in genres of learning from language arts to social studies to science, all while creating a highly immersive and engaging experience for students to also support their social-emotional well-being. Every staff member played a role in the success of the program. Through much coordination, constant communication, and adherence to a bell schedule, the related service providers also consistently reached their assigned students. The students and families had much support, but also had fun given the diversity of the activities and the chance to socialize daily on Zoom.

The Behavioral Program of Atlantic County Special Services School District continued to use the platform Acellus to accelerate learning and raise standardized test scores for students. The video-based lessons allow students to work at their own pace. All students in the district’s ESY program used a range of programs to learn and connect, from Google Meet to Boom Cards, with participation and enthusiasm high throughout the summer. The Autism Program especially took to Boom Learning during a free trial, which led to the district purchasing a subscription for continued use throughout the upcoming school year. Pictured below, student Santiago Botero, showcases the effort he put into learning with help from his mother, Sara Correa (below), and his teacher, who isn’t pictured, Pam Thomas.

ACSSSD’s Cyndy Palumbo, a teacher in the district’s Multiple Disabilities Program, encouraged her students to get out from behind their screens for hands-on activities that supported thematic curriculum focused on camping, amusements, and the beach. Her class gathered items from their yards for a sensory book project, and then came together online to share the finished products.

ACSSSD student, Santiago Botero, is seen with his mom working on lessons over the summer, which included a found object project, where students gathered items from their yards.

ACSSSD staff also coordinated four food distributions this summer, thanks to a partnership with the Community FoodBank of New Jersey.  Nearly 400  ACSSSD and Atlantic County Institute of Technology families benefited from the donations, which were boxed up and available for pickup at the school.

ACSSSD staff coordinated four food distributions this summer to help families in need.

“These highlights from our member districts speak to the dedication and passion of staff throughout our county special services school districts,” said Dr. Howard Lerner, superintendent of Bergen County Special Services School District and chairman of the New Jersey Joint Council of County Special Services School Districts. “Administrators, teachers, therapists, behaviorists and so many more worked in overdrive to ensure our students with special needs and their families found their summer ESY experience not only productive, but also filled with summer fun. They’ve continued to pursue new ideas, shared them with each other, and adapted their curriculum to keep raising the bar for remote and virtual learning.”