Planning for special-needs students

In last week’s article, “Day schools seek to accommodate special-needs students” (WJW, Dec. 5), Meredith Jacobs addresses a critical issue in the Jewish community and highlights a model program in the Washington, D.C., area. The article focuses primarily on the small number of children who are enrolled in SULAM each year.

I would never diminish the success of SULAM, nor the gift of Jewish education that they are providing to a wide range of students. Certainly, these families are blessed to have SULAM as a resource in the community. However, a far more widespread problem (only briefly alluded to in the article) are other area day-school students struggling to succeed because of their learning differences, and parents who are faced with the difficult decision of providing their child with a Jewish education or an education that will best meet their child’s learning needs. These are children diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia, processing disorders, mental health issues and other challenges that effect learning.

Both Rabbi Mitch Malkus and Dr. Marc Kramer make excellent points in the article about the expectation — and the disappointment — often associated with community day schools and their capacity to serve all children. While it is true that Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School has a relatively robust team of learning specialists, and that children may receive support from these specialists three to four times each week, there are two larger issues as I see them.

First, Jewish day schools need to examine best practices when it comes to
educating diverse learners. Specialized, differentiated instruction does not mean going at a slower pace, or teaching in the same way in a different room. It means having classroom educators who have a deep understanding of different learning modalities, ultimately creating classrooms in which each child is respected and appreciated for his or her unique strengths and can access information in the ways that work best for the students. In that way, and so many others, inclusive classrooms truly benefit every student.

Second, it is not a new phenomenon (as the article suggests) that families are looking to Jewish day schools to educate their children with special needs. In fact, in the almost 40 years since IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) passed, families have been pleading, fighting, wondering, crying, bemoaning when their children with special needs will be welcomed into the Jewish community like their typically developing peers.

I fully agree with Dr. Kramer that it would be irresponsible for Jewish day schools to accept children they are not prepared to support. However, if it is true that one should “not mistake a school not yet able to accommodate every learner as a school unwilling to accommodate every learner” then these schools must have a plan in place for when and how every learner will be accommodated.

When community day schools create strategic plans or fundraising campaigns, for example, they establish immediate, short-term and long-term goals. If Jewish day schools laid out their goals for inclusion — what types of learners they can accommodate immediately, what types of learners are included in their three-year, five-year, 10-year plans — families would have much more confidence that these day schools really do care about inclusion as a paramount Jewish value.
Only then will we be able to stand proudly as a Jewish community, knowing that we are better — individually and collectively — when everyone is included in the fabric of Jewish life.

Meredith Polsky is director of training and advocacy at Matan, an organization striving to provide a Jewish education for each Jewish child.

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