Editor's Note: Last month, The New Normal featured Inclusion advocate Shelley Cohen's perspective on a new Jewish day school for children with learning disabilities opening in Manhattan next fall. Now, Dr. Yoni Schwab (Assistant Head of School) responds with his perspective on the Shefa School.
This fall, the Shefa School will open in the new Lincoln Square Synagogue building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. As a new, stand-alone, pluralistic Jewish day school for children with language-based learning disabilities in kindergarten through eighth grade, it will provide expert, immersive instruction to help students overcome dyslexia and other learning challenges that interfere with reading and writing. We have seen significant demand for such a school, with children quickly enrolling from throughout the New York area and from across the spectrum of Jewish practice and engagement.
Despite their differences, these families seek a common goal: a high-quality special education that will help their children build the academic skills they need to return successfully to mainstream educational settings. Until now, this kind of program has only been available at a handful of secular special education schools. These families want it integrated seamlessly with the kind of Jewish learning, living and values only available in Jewish day schools.
Despite the overwhelming enthusiasm and support we have received from the community, a few have viewed our arrival on the scene as a sign of communal failure. Though complimentary of Shefa’s willingness to help children with learning disabilities, they have characterized our structure as a stand-alone school as “substandard.” Criticizing Jewish day schools for not being inclusive enough, these individuals believe that if day schools provided sufficient support, virtually all children would thrive in an inclusive environment.
Inclusion advocates have rightly focused communal attention on the end-goal of inclusion in society for all people with disabilities. On that point, we at Shefa heartily agree. Sadly, until recently, the Jewish community and American society in general tended to segregate and even hide those with special needs of all kinds. They received low-quality education and were provided few opportunities to make connections with “typically” developing peers – a loss for both them and their mainstream counterparts. A recent study found that families of people with disabilities are largely alienated from the Jewish community as a result. That historical legacy makes advocates understandably wary of any program that pulls people with disabilities away from mainstream settings. It has led to the assumption that optimal interventions not only result in inclusion but must always be executed in an inclusive setting, too.
It is certainly the case that Jewish day schools can do more and do it better so that more students can succeed in an inclusive setting. To that end, a central part of our mission is to encourage a parallel effort to elevate the quality of inclusionary programs within existing Jewish day schools. Nevertheless, we don't see those programs and ours as mutually exclusive.
Though day schools can certainly continue to improve, it is simply false to say that they are currently doing nothing – or next to nothing – to promote inclusion. Over the past seven months, the Shefa team has visited almost 30 local day schools, and nearly all of them have devoted resources to supporting students with learning disabilities. The schools we visit typically estimate their proportion of students with LDs at 30 percent, and the vast majority of those kids are supported well within their day schools.
If all day schools had optimal supports in place, would every student with learning disabilities be best served in mainstream schools? The current research and best practices say no. Every type of disability is different and requires different responses, and it turns out the best interventions for certain challenges – in our case language-based learning disabilities – occur in schools where students are grouped homogeneously based on skills and immersed in structured, language-rich instruction all day.
This kind of intervention is not possible in mainstream schools, nor would it be desirable. While most students would not benefit from this style and pace of learning, children with significant language-based learning disabilities require it. It enables them to accelerate their learning and, in most cases, close the skills gap over time so that they are able to mainstream successfully, often with minimal supports.
In other words, the separation entailed by attending a school like Shefa is temporary and ultimately in the service of unencumbered lifelong inclusion in the Jewish community and general society. Furthermore, even though students may benefit from a specialized educational environment during the school day for a few years, they can and should still be included in afterschool programs, summer camps, and synagogue life. It’s just that they are most likely to function well as adults if they are given the opportunity for this intensive academic intervention as children.
Learning in a specialized program can offer greater long-term academic success and ability to function in society for those with language-based learning disabilities and it can also be better for their self-esteem. This may seem counterintuitive, as participating in separate programs can make some people with disabilities feel left out. However, the opposite is true for many children with language-based learning disabilities.
As a bright and socially aware bunch, these kids quickly notice that they cannot read and write like their mainstream classmates. When they remain in an inclusive school setting, many begin to describe themselves as “dumb,” and all of the well-meaning supports – resource rooms, tutors, speech and language therapy, modified work and assessments, and more – reinforce the notion that they are less able than their friends. Too often, they begin to hate school, act out, develop anxiety disorders, and stop trying. Many kids do well when supported in mainstream schools, but some do not. It is for the latter group that we are creating the Shefa School.
When children walk into a school where the learning is “just right,” where everyone learns the way they do, and where they don’t have to be pulled out of class constantly to try to catch up, they begin to see how capable they really are. I was privileged to be the psychologist in a secular special education school, and I saw hundreds of students undergo this transformation.
When children are taught the way their brains learn, their learning accelerates until they are ready to go back, skills in hand, to succeed in mainstream schools.
Because of the tremendously positive outcomes that high-quality special education schools have on students’ academic skills, social-emotional development and self-confidence, it’s not just day school parents who are choosing them in great numbers. Demand is so great that there are not enough spots in any of them to keep up. If this is a failing of inclusion, then it applies not only to Jewish day schools, but to every public and independent school out there, even those with the most resources. Is it possible that everyone is doing a bad job at inclusion? Or could it be that is there something to the special education school model that is driving parents to choose this option for their children? Instead of viewing the Shefa School as a sign of day schools’ failure, perhaps it should be seen as offering children with language-based learning disabilities an alternative to the current secular school options, allowing them to remain included in the Jewish community.
We teach our kids that equality does not mean everyone gets the same thing; equality is when everyone gets what he or she needs. How ironic would it be if we tried to shoehorn all children with learning disabilities into a one-size-fits-all model that says inclusion is always the best method. We need more options, not fewer, so that we can reach as many Jewish children and families as possible. Though inclusion is ideal for most kids, a small percentage benefit from a more specialized environment. We should not deprive them of state-of-the-art interventions that have the greatest potential to foster their future full inclusion in society.
Yoni Schwab, Ph.D., is the Assistant Head of School of the Shefa School and formerly the Psychologist of The Windward School. He is also on the adjunct clinical faculty at Ferkauf Graduate School of Yeshiva University and on the expert panel of Parents.com, the website of Parents Magazine.