Special Education Beyond the Big Apple

18 Mar 2015

In the halls of Phoenix Hebrew Academy you may meet a young man with cerebral palsy. The 13-year old relies on a walker and wears a soft helmet on his head in case he falls, but he is perhaps best recognized by the peers around him, who offer to carry his books and assist him up the stairs, shares Principal Rabbi Harris Cooperman.

“Students volunteer to help him, they want to help him and he does very well socially because our kids accept him and appreciate him. He tries to the best of his abilities to play some sports, and to participate in whatever our other students are doing,” shared Rabbi Cooperman.

While the Phoenix day school has faculty members who are experienced special education teachers, this young man receives additional state-provided services provided during the school day.

Actively looking to promote the positive qualities and resources of its Jewish community, Phoenix is one of 45 other American communities participating in this year’s Orthodox Union Jewish Communities Fair on Sunday, April 26 in Manhattan.

Over the years, Fair coordinators have become more aware and sensitized to the needs and concerns of both community-seekers and the communities themselves.

“Families with a child living with special needs have expressed doubt about leaving the Greater New York area because this is the only place services are available if they prioritize a Jewish education,” stated Hannah Farkas, Fair coordinator and assistant director of the OU Department of  Synagogue and Community Services. “New York certainly offers a wide variety, but it is not the only option.”

Of the communities scheduled to pitch themselves to potential newcomers, four (Atlanta, Boston, Boynton Beach, and Philadelphia) offer Jewish day school experiences specifically geared for students with special needs. Countless additional communities to be represented at the Fair receive state and communal funding for classroom resources, resource rooms, employ seasoned professionals in the field of special education, and prioritize creating and maintaining an inclusive environment.

Many of the communities have worked with The International Jewish Resource Center for Inclusion and Special Education (IJRCISE )—a division of the Orthodox Union’s agency Yachad/ the National Jewish Council for Disabilities—which offers resources and support for families, students, and the schools that they attend, fostering inclusion in the appropriate educational setting for each child.

“We aren’t making promises that every community can accommodate the same needs as the options that exist in New York, but we encourage parents to come to the Fair and find out what options do exist—they may be pleasantly surprised,” said Adina Schwarzbaum, Fair community coordinator.

According to Batya Jacob, director of IJRCISE, classroom dynamics to accommodate students with a disability generally fall into two scenarios. Students placed in self-contained classes are smaller in size, geared toward a particular disability or challenge. Students placed in inclusive classrooms are typical day school classrooms with a typical teacher and those requiring extra assistance receive the extra support to enable them to receive their necessary services.

“Most families are trying to have their child placed in an inclusive classroom,” Batya Jacob informed. “As an educator, it’s essential to look at every child as a diverse learner—building the skills that will allow them to shine and be challenged appropriately—and with our students who require extra assistance this needs to be emphasized more. Any skills we provide teachers with truly help every student in the classroom, not just the student with special needs. The community needs to prioritize this mentality.”

Those living in the Philadelphia area, including its suburb Wynnewood (who will be represented at the OU Fair) have access to OROT, an a special education-based organization which makes it possible for those with diverse learning needs to receive a Jewish day school education, whose needs cannot be met by a resource room.

“We try to make individualized curriculums for each child,” emphasized Beverly Bernstein, OROT educational director. “We keep the lines of communication open with parents, we form strong bonds with our mainstream teachers and we implement research-based curricula in all developmental areas.”

For those interested in Malden, Massachusetts (a suburb of Boston), Gateways: Access to Jewish Education is a regional model in the Boston area that covers the broad spectrum of Jewish education and special education needs. Nancy Mager, director of Gateways Jewish Education Programs, oversees their self-contained programs, including the Sunday Program, a teen volunteer program, B’nai Mitzvah Program, Mitzvah Mensches—an integrated teen youth group—and a preschool pilot program.

“We have exceptional, seasoned special education teachers and therapists who provide support within local Jewish day schools, synagogues, preschools and community programs. We also run our own programs for students whose challenges cannot be met in those places. We provide workshops, coaching and consultation and professional development across the entire Boston area for synagogues, teachers and administrators in Jewish educational settings,” she noted.

While not designed to meet the needs of children with more severe learning disabilities or children with mental impairments, multiple handicaps, or behavioral/emotional disorders, The Atlanta Jewish Academy is home to The Matthew Blumenthal M’silot Program, a specialized program with a small student to teacher ratio for those with mild to moderate learning disabilities. With a dual curriculum general and Judaic studies, teachers use direct instruction and multi-sensory learning, placing strong emphasis on decoding, reading, and written and oral language.

“The goal of the M’Silot program is that every child can meet their potential, and with the small student-teacher ratio, it’s an almost specialized program per student,” noted Bonnie Cook, AJA director of admissions. Once graduated from the program, students often mainstream into the school.

Nachum Chasan, principal of The Silver Academy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, employs a resource team consisting of several teaching specialists that work with students with various disabilities and those that are in need of enrichment.

“The Silver Academy is very much an inclusive school that is able to deal with a wide array of learning disabilities, but we are limited with the resources to effectively meet the needs of every disability,” he described. “Partnering with our local Capital Area Intermediate Unit, that provides us with psychological services, counseling, remedial services for reading and math, speech and language services and ESL, we have been able to provide a range of resources—including thoroughly accommodating the needs of several students with Asperger’s that are able to function on a high level.”

So come to the OU Jewish Communities Fair on Sunday, April 26 with an open mind and a list of questions. For further information and to register, visit www.ou.org/fair.

Batya Jacob and The International Jewish Resource Center for Inclusion and Special Education can be reached at batyaj@ou.org or 212-613-8127.


The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.