I read the article, “Kids with Special Needs to get New York City School of Their Own” (Jan. 18), with mixed feelings.
It is exciting to see an innovative educator developing a new way to offer children with special needs a Jewish education in Manhattan. According to the article, “[Ilana Ruskay-Kidd had] seen too many families try Jewish day school for a child with disabilities, only to end up transferring out because the school couldn’t offer the support they needed.” What concerns me is here is that if Jewish day schools are not successfully supporting children with special needs, or are not willing to accept children with special needs, why aren’t we as a community pushing back? Why is the answer to open a new school that further segregates this community, if we believe that inclusion is a better model?
At the Luria Academy of Brooklyn, we value diversity in its multitude of meanings. Our students are from chasidic, secular Israeli, Modern Orthodox, and interfaith families, and come to school with a wide range of learning abilities. We successfully integrate special needs students into our classrooms. We believe that students with special needs can be appropriately supported in mainstream classrooms, and that having peer role models of neurotypical students only enhances their development. But it isn’t only the students with special needs who benefit from integration. We take our task seriously of educating the whole child – not only academically and Jewishly, but also developing kind, considerate friends and strong leaders who truly value the opinions of others. We are raising a generation of Jewish children that approaches both the Jewish community and the world with open minds and open hearts, and we are sending the important message that students with special needs not only belong in our communities and in our classrooms, but on our playdates and at our birthday parties.
Having children with special needs in a general education classroom does not detract from neurotypical learners, and does not prevent achievement of academic excellence. At Luria our teachers work tirelessly to be sure that everyone is challenged and that our students encourage and enhance one another’s learning. Giving students the opportunity to move around during the school day, to choose where to sit and do their work – at a table or on the floor, with a partner or on their own – it’s a simple concept, but it does wonders for children who have trouble sitting still at a desk, and does not detract from the skills or concepts being acquired. And giving students hands on activities that allow them to internalize and fully grasp educational concepts rather than listen to a teacher talk at them for 40 minutes, a simple and powerful way to keep a child with attention issues on task, engaged and learning at the highest level. These small changes do not mean that a classroom shifts to being unstructured or disorganized. In fact the opposite, only the students are empowered to structure it and organize it rather than being told to do so by the teacher.
And while integration demands more resources, those resources do not all have to come from within the school. A special education coordinator who understands the workings of the Board of Education and can help children get the services they need and families get the financial support they need, can make all the difference. Ours has. Related Service Providers coming into school environments allow students to work through their deficits in ways that relate directly to their learning. Rather than going to occupational therapy afterschool when a child is exhausted, the therapist comes into their language arts class and works with them on an essay they are writing for class. A child who works with a therapist on social skills can have a lunch session with a few other children who are actually his friends and can practice conflict resolution with his actual classmates.
All of our students need teachers to support and challenge them in ways that respond to their needs. Children with special needs may require a bit more attention and care than some of the others, but they are members of Clal Yisrael and they still belong in our schools. I believe that all Jewish day schools need to make a commitment to support as many types of learners as they can. The few that are doing it successfully cannot do it alone. We need to challenge our community to look beyond the norms that have defined what learning environments ‘need’ to look like and feel like. Let’s re-open the conversation of how to be inclusive both because we believe in it as an educational model, and because all of our children deserve a home in a Jewish day school.
Amanda Pogany is Head of School, Luria Academy of Brooklyn.