Leveling The Playing Field For Special Needs Learners

Leveling The Playing Field For Special Needs Learners

Amy Sara Clark writes about politics and education. A Columbia Journalism School graduate, she's worked at CBS News, The Journal News, The Jersey Journal, Mom365, JTA and Prospect Heights Patch. She comes to journalism from academia where she earned a master's degree in European History with a focus on Vichy France.

In December, Jonathan Holub, 35, took over the helm of the PALS (Providing Alternative Learning Strategies) program for students with learning disabilities at Carmel Academy, a K-8 Jewish day school in Greenwich, Conn. The Jewish Week caught up with him via email to discuss how the field of special education has changed over the past decade and a half and the unique challenges Jewish schools face in serving students with learning disabilities.

Q.: You have worked in special education since 2003. How has the field changed in that time?

A.: For so long, special education was not part of the mainstream culture — there was a stigma and stereotype attached to students and programs. It has been gratifying to witness schools moving away from the exclusive self-contained classroom model toward mainstreaming, which allows students to learn with typically developing peers in subject areas of strengths and receive the extra support in areas of need. For example, a student can learn in a mainstream math class, while receiving maximum support in a self-contained ELA [English Language Arts] class. This represents a significant shift from prior models, when a student was solely identified as needing “special education” with little opportunity for peer integration.

Does special education in a Jewish context have any challenges that secular special education programs do not face?

First and foremost is the challenge of a dual-language Hebrew curriculum for students who may have language-based disabilities. Should the focus be solely on English language skills until they are remediated? Does this put the child at a serious disadvantage in their Hebrew learning? Does learning Hebrew while addressing English language deficiencies benefit the learner and promote language growth? I have heard many great arguments and support for all sides of this debate, and it is a main point of discussion when creating our learning plans.

Another issue that Jewish day schools encounter is the lack of well-trained Hebrew and Judaic studies special educators. We address this by hiring teachers based on their strength in Judaic studies and then invest a great deal of resources in training them to apply special education strategies in their classrooms.

Time is perhaps the greatest difference between secular special education and Jewish special education. Jewish day schools have the additional charge to teach the same curriculum as secular schools in addition to multiple Judaic studies and Hebrew curricula. The additional material adds a challenge when designing the optimal individual learning program for a student. One Judaic studies area where we have been especially successful is the integration of our PALS students with grade-wide and school-wide learning celebration of chagim (holidays) and participation in integrated, lifecycle events. We also often integrate students for T’fillah (prayers), physical education, art, music, lunch, recess, special projects, ceremonies and other activities.

Although the mainstreaming model requires a lot of thought and planning to ensure that the needs of all students are being accommodated without compromising the integrity of either the child or the curriculum, for students with learning disabilities, being part of a thriving, accepting Jewish school community can be incredibly impactful on their self-esteem, sense of acceptance and belonging.

Carmel Academy began the PALS program as a pilot initiative 10 years ago. What prompted the initiative?

When Carmel Academy was founded in 1997, our mission was to provide an alternative option to the established Jewish day schools in the Westchester and Fairfield area. Creating a program for children with special needs is a natural outgrowth of Carmel Academy’s commitment to providing a meaningful Jewish day school experience for all children. Within its first few years of existence, Carmel’s professional and lay leadership recognized a glaring need for special education options within the Jewish day school world. There were stand-alone special education programs and there were Jewish day schools, but no Jewish day schools offered a special education program. We piloted the program with just a handful of students and today offer a full-fledged K-8 program.

What made you decide to go into the field of special education? Has anything over the years been a surprise to you?

Just out of college, I worked as a permanent substitute in the middle school I attended as a student. When I did not have a specific assignment, I worked with children in the resource room. I fell in love with special education almost immediately. The individualized attention and small group instruction was directly in line with my personal educational philosophy. Every student can learn when in the right environment.

The biggest surprise to me over the years is the continued stereotype and stigma associated with having special learning needs. I expect these to fade as special education continues to grow and mainstream integration opportunities continue to expand. It is our responsibility as educators to help shift this thinking and level the playing field for students with special needs. This can only happen when educational leaders step outside of their comfort zones and get creative with meeting the needs of all students. It is a difficult road, but one worth traveling.

Image 1: Jonathon Holub. Courtesy of Carmel Academy

Image 2: An educator at the Carmel Academy interacting with a student. Courtesy of Carmel Academy

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