And Rav said to Rabbi Shmuel Bar Shilat (a well-known teacher of children during the Talmud period), “A student who knows how to read should read in class with his classmates, and those who do not know how to read should remain in the class in the company of their classmates.” (Talmud, Bava Batra 21a)
HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Schools increasingly need to be aware of a growing range of conditions and challenges that students confront. These challenges present school leaders with numerous considerations at various levels: funding, admissions, staffing, curriculum, health care and more. This pioneering issue serves as a roadmap for leaders as they navigate this complex terrain.
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In 1989, I experienced a major shift in my thinking about educational practices for serving students with special educational needs. As the special education administrator in a Boston-area public school system, I thought existing practice, that included separate educational settings for some students, was “best practice.”
The “Mrs. Christensen” calls usually started like this: “Mrs. Christensen, this is Jacob’s religious school teacher and I wanted to talk to you about his behavior…lack of attention…homework situation.”
Children with autism are so varied that an ordinary person meeting two or more of them might be puzzled that their conditions fall under the same name. This is why child mental health professionals have settled on the term “autism spectrum disorders,” or “ASDs,” to describe this heterogeneous group.
This column features books, articles and websites, recommended by our authors and people from the RAVSAK network, pertaining to the theme of the current issue of HaYidion for readers who want to investigate the topic in greater depth.
As the North American Jewish Day School Conference in LA came to a close, I found myself not only re-energized by the incredible sessions I attended, the people I met, and the sense of community that pervaded, but also reflective, thinking about the past year. It is hard to believe that just over a year ago, RAVSAK underwent a transition in governance and I assumed the board chair position with four other founding board members.
Arlene Kanter, director of the Disability Law and Policy Program at the College of Law at Syracuse University—and mother of two graduates from my day school—is currently in Israel on a Fulbright scholarship to help Tel Aviv University establish the country’s first academic program in disability studies. She was recently quoted as saying that what struck her most since arriving in Israel is how myths and misconceptions about people with disabilities transcend local cultural and religious boundaries, and how the fight for equal rights and social recognition for people with disabilities is a universal battle.
One of the basic concepts of Jewish thought is the idea that everyone is created betzelem Elokim, in the image of G-d. This idea frames the way individuals should view others. Students need to recognize that each human being is unique, important and of equal value.
Every teacher has heard about attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, even if he or she isn’t sure of the exact diagnostic criteria. Kids throw around the term “ADHD” in the same way they casually diagnose others with obsessive-compulsive disorder or schizophrenia. A well-organized child is “so OCD,” a child whose ideas seem a little unusual is a “schizo,” a child with lots of energy is “ADHD.” These schoolyard diagnoses have little in common with the real thing.
Learning support teams, the collaboration of teachers and specialists to provide for special learners, are of critical importance in the successful implementation of special education. The responsibilities of team members are extensive, including leadership roles in providing ongoing support to students, parents, teachers and school administrators. Team members need to be involved in the school admission process, early identification of student needs, goal setting, case management, defining accommodations and modifications, remediation, strategy instruction, study skills, differentiated instruction, curriculum mapping, assessment and setting standards for classes as well as school grading policies. Additionally, learning support teams often play an important role in guiding parents through the process of understanding their child’s strengths and challenges and helping students through the demystification process and towards self advocacy.
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?”
Research shows that inclusion continues to be best practice in the field of special education. In the words of disability researcher Zana Marie Lutfiyya: “If people with cognitive impairments are to form friendships and be a part of society as adults, these relationships must develop during childhood. Classmates and neighbors will grow into adult coworkers and friends later in life. Integrated classrooms and recreational activities are important, but are only successful when facilitated. In these settings children with and without disabilities get to meet each other and form relationships.”
“Every Jewish child deserves a Jewish education.” “No child will be turned away for financial reasons.” “Of course, the Jewish community believes in Jewish education.”
Many families confide in me, as a rabbi, about their issues and challenges. One of the greatest problems families have shared with me in recent years has been that of special needs children and Jewish day schools. Families have told me about being turned away from Jewish day schools, being “counseled out” of Jewish day schools, being welcomed into Jewish day schools with inadequate special education programs and living in communities where they simply could not find a Jewish day school that had any kind of special education program.
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