HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Proactively Meeting the Needs of All Students in Day School
The picture of special education in Jewish day schools is far brighter today than it was even ten years ago, but for many parents it’s still not adequate. Students with special needs continue to be excluded from day school, and parents can’t understand why their children with special needs are not allowed to participate in the education offered in a day school environment. In research Annette Koren and I performed of parent experiences related to their child with special needs and day schools (“Inclusion of Children with Special Needs in Day Schools: Parent Experiences,” in the 2003 Jewish Education News), parents felt that day schools need to decide whether they are interested in being “prep schools or Jewish schools.” They spoke of the decision to have their child leave the school as though the decision had just been made, although in reality it had been years. They described the pain of having their child—and themselves—excluded from the day school community. A recently published Forward article by Tom Fields-Mayer, “Toward Day Schools for All Children,” opens with the question posed by the author’s son who has high functioning autism: “Why can’t I go to the same schools as my brothers?”
1) What does it take for a day school to have the capacity to serve the variety of special learning needs of Jewish children who want to attend day school? 2) How does a school develop this capacity?
This seems to leave us with two different perceptions. While parents see the glass as half empty, Jewish day schools see the glass as half full. Most day schools and Jewish special education programs believe they are successfully servicing students with special learning needs. Day school doors have opened wider over the past years, resulting in more children with special needs accepted and successfully retained in day school. There are currently students attending day school who have been diagnosed with learning disabilities, ADHD, cerebral palsy, mood disorders, autism spectrum disorders, cognitive challenges, and sensory issues. However, not all schools service all these diagnoses or all levels of severity. Parents remain distraught that their child continues to be excluded because their learning needs cannot be met. We are left asking two questions: 1) What does it take for a day school to have the capacity to serve the variety of special learning needs of Jewish children who want to attend day school? 2) How does a school develop this capacity?
Several components are necessary to increase the capacity of a school to service students with a variety of types and levels of special needs. In my work with day schools, I have learned that it’s not always about the specific diagnosis; rather, it is a combination of factors that help the student succeed. For example, while two students diagnosed with Asperger’s who have similar strengths attend a day school, one continues through high school while the other is asked to leave after 7th grade. The diagnosis tells us little about why one student was able to complete 8th grade at one day school, transition to another day school, and graduate from 12th grade, while the other had to leave before completing the first day school. Clearly factors other than diagnoses play an important role in creating a successful environment. When these factors are in place, schools can be proactive in planning and programming for students with special needs.
Administrative and Board Vision
The importance of creating an accepting atmosphere where all students are respected is an important factor underlying a day school’s success in servicing students with special needs. Administrative vision related to special needs is equally as important as their vision for the school in general. Inclusion of students with special needs in the school is an integral part of how the school views students and their community. Administrators are reluctant to have their school seen by the community as a school for students with special needs for fear that parents will not enroll their children without special needs. Administrators and board members need to be able to talk with potential and current parents about the importance of creating a learning community that responds to all students’ uniqueness. One cannot underestimate the power of having the administration and board standing behind support service offerings, not only for the students but for the faculty as well.
One of the major complaints parents have voiced is their belief that the day school responded as though their child was the first and only student with special needs to attend the school. They talked about their surprise when they met other former day school parents who were now part of the local public school. There, they learned from special educators that there are many students with the same issues in the school.
Strategic planning helps to remove the stigma associated with special needs. Openly acknowledging that there are students in attendance who work with their special needs staff is a first step to strategically planning for special education. Identifying existing services in parent handbooks and on the school’s website are simple ways to open the conversation. It seems like a little step, but for parents considering enrolling their child, who they know has special needs or whose special needs may not yet be apparent, it is reassuring to know that educational supports are in place if and when needed.
Having a plan in place helps parents and teachers know that if a problem occurs, there are people available who know how to address the issues presented. Procedures give admissions personnel the answers for parents who may ask about their child and what services they could receive. To hear what services are available, what procedures are in place for handling learning issues (e.g., how many hours of reading support can be offered, whether a “lunch bunch” exists for students who need a quiet space or a small group of students for social interaction, or what provisions are made if a child has a meltdown) gives reassurance to all parents that the school can handle the variety of issues that arise from students with—and without—special needs. It’s much the same as knowing that there is a nurse available if a child gets ill or needs medication (whether Amoxicillin or Ritalin).
When day schools have special educators and educational psychologists as members of their staff, when they have procedures established to create safety nets for struggling students, they can be proactive about creating programs that meet the needs of each student. These programs have to allow staff the creativity and flexibility to consider new issues should they arrive. Perhaps a child who is twice exceptional (i.e., gifted with a learning disability) attends the school; it takes a team effort to examine the array of possible solutions that can ensure the student’s success. Possibilities include providing English translations for vocabulary and/or Hebrew text, organizing a smaller class section for a specific subject, dropping one subject from the student’s schedule and substituting a remedial class. If a student needs additional therapies, for example with a speech and language pathologist or occupational therapist, partnerships with other organizations that provide therapists can offer these services, often directly in the school. Building time for these professionals to meet with classroom and support staff to discuss the student’s progress is important for this approach to be successful.
Cost of services should also be part of this planning. What amount of support can the school provide as part of their costs of running a school and how much should the parents provide if those services fall short of what their child needs? Obviously, at some point, the costs can be prohibitive and only parents who can afford it will be able to have their child attend. Therefore, it’s important for financial aid or scholarships to be available, or arrangements with the public school need to be worked out within the guidelines of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for parents who choose a private school setting.
The teacher is at the center of classroom learning, and his or her ability to respond to each student is at the core of the school’s ability to create an inclusive school. Teachers need ongoing professional development to support their efforts at including students with special needs. Often schools provide in-service workshops where teams of teachers work together to learn, share and discuss new approaches. Classes at universities provide teachers with the opportunity to interact with teachers from other schools, to widen their professional network, and hear different perspectives. Hebrew College offers the only program in Jewish special education that integrates the field of special education with Jewish views, expanding educators’ capabilities to educate the variety of special needs in the day school setting. Teachers of inclusive classrooms and special educators need to have the skills to instruct all students, to differentiate their classrooms and to provide remediation for students with learning difficulties. Classroom teachers need to make accommodations designed by special educators; they need time to plan and evaluate student progress together.
Communicating with parents is crucially important for providing for students with special needs. For a parent whose child has already been diagnosed, their prior experiences can be helpful in establishing the supports needed. If the child is first being diagnosed, they need clear and concrete information about the issues observed, the child’s responses to various teaching methods and assignments, and steps to take. Successful relationship needs to be based on trust. Staff who usher the parents through the IEP process with the local public school provide an immense support, helping to create a trusting relationship. Learning that your child has learning issues is not easy for any parent. If the day school can assure the parents they have services and students who already take advantage of such services, it goes a long way in building the parent-professional relationship.
By creating an inclusive school, parents feel that their children are respected as individuals with unique strengths and challenges that the school can and will address. Parents need to know that the approaches and strategies used in school are helpful for all students, but are necessary for those with special learning needs. Differentiated instruction began so that gifted children would remain challenged academically. Now we see that it is equally helpful for students who find learning a struggle. Day schools need to continually focus on students’ academic and social learning so that all who wish a day school education can receive one. ♦
Sandy Miller-Jacobs, EdD, professor of Jewish special education at Hebrew College and professor emerita of special education at Fitchburg State University, consults with Jewish school personnel to create inclusive classrooms and congregations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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