Most New Jerseyans think their state is terrific, but a group of seven boys in Kim Pagano’s elementary special needs class took it to a new level: They wrote a winning essay, answering the question, “What makes New Jersey and its people so great?” and charmed the selection panel enough to take home the grand prize. Writing lines like “Our state is cool because it’s so small, you can visit different places in one day!” and “… (None of us) ate a tomato pie; we all want to try one!”, the boy’s excitement about their home state shone through.
Belleville School #5 students were among hundreds throughout the state who participated in the first annual “Nicky Fifth’s Read Across America- NJ” contest, sponsored by the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) and funded by a grant from the National Education Association (NEA), where they read a book from the popular Nicky Fifth children’s series and let it inspire their imaginations. The series, written by former educator and award-winning author Lisa Willever, centers on its main character, Nicky Fifth, and his friends as they set out on various adventures throughout New Jersey and learn about its history, landmarks, and all the things that make it wonderful.
“This essay contest allowed them to share their thoughts on Nicky Fifth, and how he viewed his parents and our state,” Pagano said. “It was cool to see how they could relate to Nicky and laugh along with him while becoming fascinated that all these places existed. They were so inspired, they moved ahead on their own to explore the different places, through computers and books.”
Little did Pagano’s students know, though, they were about to embark on their own real-life Nicky Fifth adventure. In an assembly hosted today by NJEA, Willever addressed the entire fifth grade and talked about how New Jersey provides endless inspiration for her series. Willever then called Pagano and her class up to join her, when they all learned they will be sent this spring to a New Jersey landmark of their choice—with the news being greeted by cheers and raucous applause from their peers, Pagano’s colleagues, and school administrators.
“I am always so proud of every New Jersey student, but this is really special,” Willever declared. “How appropriate that in a state so diverse and with so many differences, we are honoring the accomplishments of students with learning differences. I know every student in New Jersey joins me in celebrating this outstanding achievement.”
Willever was not the only one to feel that way.
“What a great honor for our students to meet Lisa Willever,” said Belleville Schools Superintendent Dr. Richard Tomko. “I know our students worked very hard on their submission, and it was great to see how excited Ms. Pagano’s class was after Lisa announced that they had won the contest.”
In addition to the trip, NJEA provided the school with a complete set of the 10-book Nicky Fifth series for its library, but Willever had one more surprise up her sleeve: Each fifth-grade student received copies of three different books in the Nicky Fifth series, Nicky Fifth Fit, How To Train Your Government, and Nicky Fifth Takes a Stand for Public Schools.
“I’m so proud that Mrs. Pagano’s class won the essay contest on what makes New Jersey and its people so great,” said Alaina Chip, a special education teacher and vice president of local NJEA affiliate, the Belleville Education Association (BEA). “I think our New Jersey public schools and Ms. Pagano’s class are what makes New Jersey great, too!”
For Pagano, though, the win was more than just receiving the top prize and set of books; it was about her students—and others—realizing they can do anything they set their mind to.
“Students with learning disabilities and emotional behaviors are often underestimated about how smart they are and how perceptive they can be. It’s wonderful to see them honored for being just who they are,” she continued. “My students can change the world, and I believe in them.”