Ilana Ruskay-Kidd was tired of kvetching.
As director of the JCC in Manhattan’s nursery school, which has an inclusion model serving children with special needs, Ruskay-Kidd had seen too many of her graduates — children who “were thriving in nursery school with support” — unable to continue their Jewish education.
And, as a day school parent and graduate, she’d 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.
“I’ve been observing the pain and loss of these families that the Jewish day school world is not open to them,” she said, adding that many such families end up feeling rejected not just by the day school, but the larger Jewish community.
So, with the encouragement of her boss, JCC Executive Director Joy Levitt, she decided to do something: start a pluralistic Jewish day school for children with learning and developmental delays, The Jewish Week has learned. It would be the first of its kind in New York, and is believed to be the first stand-alone special-needs pluralistic Jewish day school in North America.
At the end of June, Ruskay-Kidd will step down from her position at the JCC to work full time laying the groundwork for a school, which she hopes to open as soon as 2014.
“This is not an original idea,” she told The Jewish Week, noting that she has been speaking with many parents and advocates for students with disabilities, and is in the process of forming a board, determining a name and registering as a nonprofit. “It’s an idea the community has been talking about for many years.”
In setting up a new institution specifically for students with special needs, rather than pressing to have such children integrated in existing schools, the 40-year-old Ruskay-Kidd is wading into something of a debate in the Jewish — and special-needs — communities.
Many advocates for Jews with disabilities champion an inclusion model, arguing that such an approach, while more expensive, is more compassionate and beneficial to those with special needs.
Gateways, a program in Boston funded primarily by the Ruderman Family Foundation and the local federation, is widely cited as a model in the field, providing Jewish day schools and other Jewish educational institutions with the skills and resources to serve a wide range of children. (See interview with Jay Ruderman on page 5.) Another oft-cited model, while not entirely inclusion, is Carmel Academy, in Greenwich, Conn. — which has an entire special-education division track offering smaller classes and specially trained teachers, along with various opportunities to be integrated into the larger school.
Ruskay-Kidd emphasized that she does not oppose inclusion, and that she is eager to partner with existing day schools, camps and Jewish after-school programs, including the many inclusion-model programs the JCC has launched in recent years, so that her school’s students have opportunities to engage with the rest of the Jewish community.
However, she said, many families want the option of a school tailored for children with disabilities.
“What I hear from our families over and over, and it may be New Yorkers are different, is that when families are pulling their kids out of a general-education environment, what they’re looking for is a place that’s all about meeting their child’s needs: small class size, special educators, not feeling the pressure of everyone around them moving at pace they can’t keep up with, and being able to offer differentiated learning so they can be supported in areas where they are ahead.
“For some kids,” she continued, being in a typical Jewish day school triggers behavioral issues “because they feel bad about themselves, and when we’re able to give them settings where the teaching is targeted to them there’s an enormous sense of relief.”
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, founder and president of Laszlo Strategies, and an advocate for Jewish children with special needs, told The Jewish Week that while she believes “the future of education for children with disabilities is inclusion,” she is nonetheless “a fan” of Ruskay-Kidd’s effort.
“The reason this program is important is because Jewish day schools in New York are not doing their job,” she said, adding that, particularly for the growing number of Jewish children on the autism spectrum, “there are very few [day schools] that will accept them and that, if they do accept them, will give appropriate support so they can be both safe and successful.”
To be sure, most special-needs advocates say the landscape is improving, both in day schools and other Jewish institutions, and that a growing number of schools are making some efforts to accommodate such children. At the same time, however, the day school world has been, since the recession hit, very focused on issues of affordability and financial sustainability — making the idea of adding new services and supports for different types of learners somewhat daunting. Not one session at this year’s North American Jewish Day School Conference, held next month in Washington, D.C., and bringing together leaders from centrist/Modern Orthodox, pluralistic, Conservative and Reform day schools, addresses special needs or inclusion.
“I do think day schools are getting much better and, more importantly, attitudes have shifted so that we’re all starting to feel responsible for all our Jewish children,” observed Dori Frumin Kirshner, executive director of Matan, a special-education training and advocacy group that has been in discussions with Ruskay-Kidd. However, Kirshner said, there is still “a long way to go in the New York metro area,” with special-needs children frequently turned away from day schools.
“Sometimes it’s a flat-out no, sometimes parents feel their child won’t get proper support and will be best supported at a place where there’s an emphasis on special education,” Kirshner said.
Precisely which needs the new school will accommodate has not yet been determined. Ruskay-Kidd, who has been directing the JCC’s nursery school for seven years and was involved with the launch of the Ella Baker School, a progressive public school, calls that issue “one of the most important and difficult questions.
“One of the reasons a school has not been created until now is because no one wants to make those decisions” about whom to include and to exclude, she added.
At least initially, she said, the school will likely limit itself to “language processing difficulties, attentional issues and organizational issues” and not tackle autism.
“My hope is that in five years, 10 years, we’ll be able to open a second set of classrooms or inspire someone else to,” she said. “I feel really strongly that we need to start somewhere and do it really well … If we just become a hodgepodge and don’t do a good job, we’re not serving these kids.”
As a model she is looking closely at successful special-needs private schools in Manhattan like the Stephen Gaynor School and Gateway, which many Jewish families opt for when they conclude that day school is not a viable option.
The school, which Ruskay-Kidd said would probably start with only one or two grades located in borrowed or rented space, will ultimately need to raise a significant sum of money.
Tuition will likely be comparable to tuition at other private schools serving children with disabilities, Ruskay-Kidd said. She notes that “class size, the level of support and the level of the teaching staff” requires such schools to charge more than other private schools — so being able to offer financial aid will be critical.
“It’s going to be an important part of the mission of the school that it will not just be a school for families where price is not an object,” she said.
Ruskay-Kidd, who is the daughter of UJA-Federation of New York’s executive vice president and CEO, John Ruskay, said she has “really just begun to start raising money,” but is optimistic.
“I definitely believe this is an issue that touches many people’s lives. If not themselves it’s their best friend or their grandchild,” she said, adding that the issue resonates not only with people personally affected, but those who believe “as a community we are judged by how we serve all our community members.”
One Manhattan mother told The Jewish Week that she wishes she’d been able to send her 6-year-old daughter, who has speech and language delays, to a Jewish day school after the child graduated from the JCC’s nursery program.
The mother, who asked to remain anonymous in order to protect her daughter’s privacy, said she “needed a small school with teachers trained in speech and language issues.” But with the exception of Carmel, which is too far away, and possibly Manhattan Day School, which is Orthodox and thus didn’t feel like an option, “none of the day schools were remotely prepared” to accommodate her daughter.
Instead, while her younger siblings will probably go to day school, the girl attends Gateway.
“We like it, and we’re not unhappy, but I feel sad she doesn’t have Shabbat at school, and I think she’s sad about that too,” the mother said.
“I really give [Ruskay-Kidd] a lot of credit for doing this,” she added. “So many special-ed schools are started by parents, and it can be hard to get something going. I appreciate that someone who has a connection to Judaism and education is starting this, and that she’s not doing it for her kid … She’s got the community at heart and the kids at heart, and not her particular kid, which will probably lead to a more stable school.”