Special Education in Jewish Community Day Schools

Kids With Special Needs In Community Day Schools - Voices Around The Table

♦ by Dr. Nina Butler

RAVSAK is in the business of meeting educational needs, but we cannot forget that schools must also consider social and emotional needs, and that RAVSAK schools particularly are impelled by a spiritual imperative/obligation in educating Jewish children. This communal obligation is expanded by the contemporary consensus that all children are capable of learning. However, each child has a unique learning style, and could, ideally, benefit from some level of individualized instruction.

This enlightened consequence of contemporary educational theory inevitably raises the question of whether there is ever a point when a RAVSAK school should refuse to accept a Jewish child? Similarly, is there a point where, because of institutional limitations, that child’s parents should not consider a Jewish community day school? Perhaps most controversial is the question of whether it could ever be acceptable for a teacher to say, “My educational skill-set cannot meet the needs of this particularly challenging student?”

There are many questions to ask, and although we have some answers, this is not a clear, black-and-white discussion, but one with significant ‘grey zones.’ By allowing for and listening to different perspectives, - ‘the voices around the table,’- each school can be guided to make better choices for its own community and situation.

Parents

Parents are the experts at understanding the needs of their children. Although the school can help with formal assessments, parents justifiably have the most power- the loudest voice - in directing a child’s education.

Sometimes parents understand the needs of their child but are unsure about how to address those needs. They may feel that others have more expertise or training, and therefore carry a bag of insecurities to the table. As reluctant experts, some parents hope that the school has a reasonable plan that they can adopt, to relieve them of the responsibility to come up with answers. On the other hand, some parents are keenly aware of every nuance of their child’s strengths and weaknesses. They may be well educated and skillful advocates for their child. In fact, parents may even solicit the assistance of professional educational advocates from the greater community when selecting proper placement and designing an appropriate program for their child.

The more information parents can offer about their special child, the more reliable will be the decisions that are made. Parents can be reluctant to share reports from outside doctors or specialists (like psychiatrists): If a trusting relationship is to be established – a true parent-school partnership for the child’s sake- honest sharing of all information is a basic requirement. An atmosphere of trust makes it unnecessary for parents to feel compelled to shop around for test results that meet their preconceived expectations.

Parents are also more emotionally invested than the other ‘voices at the table.’ Those emotions may drive the overarching objectives that parents have when considering educational placement. For example, a detached, objective evaluation of the child may suggest the need for a highly specialized type of schooling. The parents’ hearts, however, may lead them in another direction: Being with Jewish peers may supersede any educational goal. It is easy to understand, then, that the voices around the table must first agree upon the objectives of the education.

School personnel can help parents crystallize and prioritize a child’s educational profile. Another vital role that educational professionals play is to lead parents to community and governmental assistance that extend within and beyond the educational arena. Students with special needs are often entitled to “wrap-around services,” governmental services which travel with the child, regardless of the child’s placement (the Supreme Court has made it so!). For example, if a child is entitled to ‘therapeutic staff support’ during the day, it does not matter if the child attends a public or a private school without concern for church-state conflicts.

Parents, then, hold a commanding place at “the table.” They provide the lion’s share of information about the child. They define their expectations and objectives for a particular educational placement and plan, and they can access governmental and other supports for their child (and, in a very practical way, for the school.)

When might a parent say “no” to Jewish day school enrollment?

If parents recognize that their child needs more of a life-skills curriculum, rather than a college-based academically rigorous curriculum, they may prefer a school that can provide that focus on a full-time basis. Parents may feel that their child should be immersed in an educational environment which directly addresses their unique learning needs, and while accommodations are limited only by creativity, commitment, and sometimes money, parents may prefer a setting that is designed specifically for their child rather than “fitting a square peg into a round hole.”

Some parents go to great lengths to have their public schools agree to a “split” program, where students spend part of the day in a special educational program, and part of the day mainstreamed in a Jewish day school. This can be the best of all worlds, if transportation does not rob too much time from the teachable day and if all parties are working closely as a team. Hopefully, Jewish day schools can be an option for at least some of the years of each child’s educational career and parents can always feel that their child is welcome in our Jewish communities.

The School Administration

The Administration is charged with carrying out the mission and goals of the school. Are there children who are just too challenging for the school to consider? Is it possible that educating one child can be so disruptive, or so resource-draining, or so overwhelming to staff and students, that that one child cannot join, or regrettably, has to be asked to leave the Jewish school? When does a Jewish school turn away a Jewish neshama (soul)?

Some say that a school cannot be everything to everyone, but do we really believe that? Ought a community school- by definition – serve the needs of all of the community’s children? This leads to a harrowing discussion that can degenerate into the value of one child’s neshama over another, and allocation of precious finite resources. We clearly cannot define which soul is most precious to our people, so the discussion can only go downhill from that point. Ultimately, administrators and lay leadership must consider comparable price tags in educating children with varying needs. Who is going to accept the assignment of telling a family that the Jewish community day school loves their child but cannot afford to educate him/her? Hopefully, schools will look beyond the dollars-and-cents in making their decisions.

Importantly, administrators must remember that it is their obligation to set the tone and attitudes in their school. Staff members reflect those attitudes, and the staff deserves the proper support and training to succeed with each student.

When would an administrator say ‘no’ to including a child with special needs in the day school?

It is a heart-wrenching realization to admit that the Jewish day school may not be the appropriate placement for a child. Although schools should try their absolute best to accommodate all learning needs, if the safety and welfare of other students are compromised, an administrator must help the family to find a more appropriate placement, even if that alternative is temporary. A student whose conduct disorder is exhibited by physically attacking other students and teachers may have to be removed to protect the safety of the other students in the school, to give an example. Accurate documentation is imperative to make this case to the parents and help them in describing their child’s needs to the next school. Parents’ opposition and antipathy to a move can be ameliorated by empathetic, constructive assistance from day school personnel.

The Teacher

The teacher comes to the table with a different collection of insecurities. Until very recently, teachers were trained to deal with “typical children.” Only “special education graduates” were formally trained to deal with kids who have special learning needs. It is interesting that the newest trend to hit university-level Schools of Education is the concept that all children have special learning needs, and therefore all teachers need some special education training! By teachers learning how to manage multiple assessment strategies, collaborate with other teachers and parents, and differentiate instruction, all learners benefit.

Back to our current teachers: they are the ones saying, “How can I be expected to educate this child when I have no training in the particular disability that this child has?” “How can I find the time to learn what I have to know for this one child when I have a whole classroom of other kids who really need me?” “If I wanted to be a special ed teacher, that’s what I would have become! Why is this being forced upon me?” Although staff members should feel comfortable voicing their concerns, they should be able to expect that the administration will provide adequate planning time, appropriate training, and opportunities to collaborate with parents, other staff members, and professionals. Teachers, more than any of the other “voices around the table” have the unique opportunity to see the unquantifiable positive effects on the typical students of accommodating special learners.

So, should community day schools accept all children whose parents are interested in a Jewish education? The distinctive perspectives of the parent, administrator and teacher lead to different answers. The most common resolution to the problem of dealing with special needs is creating a “Resource Room”, a distinct space and/or person devoted to special education and enrichment. Some schools have one professional special educator and a core of assistants. Other schools exact a fee from parents to provide additional teaching staff specifically for their children. Sometimes students are directed to a quiet space to meet with special personnel and sometimes the special educators co-teach with classroom staff.

It is important to note the “TSS- or Therapeutic Staff Support” provided by many states for special learners who qualify under their guidelines. A formal diagnosis is required, and such children must be assigned case managers to walk the family through the system. It makes sense that before expending our limited Jewish educational resources, we must secure all applicable governmental supports and entitlements. Most cities host local ACHIEVA (formerly ARC) offices which employ educational advocates who are available to guide parents through their local “system”. If ACHIEVA is not the appropriate organization to address a particular need, staff members can direct a parent or school to the right person.

When should a teacher say “no” to educating a student with special needs?

The simple answer? Never. If a teacher is unwilling to learn new educational strategies and make accommodations, then the teacher should reconsider being in any classroom. On the other hand, this perspective presumes that all of the other players are doing their parts. Addressing the needs of special students should be a team approach, where a plan- and IEP or Individual Education Plan- is written by a Student Support Team, ideally including all involved teachers, parents, special educator(s), administration, and other support personnel (to which parochial schools are entitled from the local public school district). Teachers must feel supported from all directions and be given opportunities for appropriate training to succeed. If the reason a teacher believes the student needs a different school is out of concern for the safety of the other students, that teacher must provide the administration with full documentation supporting that view. But, in the end, it is an administrative decision and not the teacher’s.

In conclusion, RAVSAK schools are as varied as the answers to the questions of whether they can accommodate all children who want to learn. Understanding the multiple perspectives of the “voices around the table” can be helpful in resolving these issues in the most beneficial way to our children and our schools.

Dr. Nina Butler is Principal of General Studies at Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh, PA. She raised five children, three with differing special needs. She can be reached at nbutler@hillelpgh.org
Jerry Issak-Shapiro
RAVSAK is the organizational embodiment of Klal Yisrael; it’s a genuine Big Tent.”
Jerry Isaak-Shapiro, Head of School
Agnon School

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