It is estimated that between 14% and 18% of school-age children in the United States today have some form of learning disability, the majority mild to moderate. Getting the most appropriate and supportive education for the special needs child is a top priority for their families.
Jewish community day schools have an important role to play in this arena. Students with learning disabilities often fall between the cracks in public schools. Even when properly identified, students on the autism spectrum may not be placed in the appropriate learning environment necessary for their academic success. Despite what many may believe, it is often these young people who have the greatest potential to be the future leaders of our communities. Given the proper support and guidance, they often excel academically and become adults committed to the institutions and community that guided them into adulthood.
This is why it is essential for Jewish day schools to create programs to meet the unique needs of learning-disabled students. It is possible for day schools to meet the unique learning needs of children with diagnosed learning disabilities in a cost-effective manner and without compromising the academic standards of the school through a continuum of services that allow all children to receive the support they need in the least restrictive environment possible.
The creation of a “school within a school” can easily accommodate students with language-based mild to moderate learning disabilities and/or children with developmental disabilities. The alternate track may only be needed for the Judaic and Hebrew courses in schools that use Hebrew immersion programs or can accommodate all academic programming. In all cases, the students that participate in the specialized courses should be fully integrated into all electives, specials, schoolwide programming and any other activities offered to the general student body.
The Amit Gar’inim School was created to provide as much inclusion as possible in a day school setting, while also addressing the individual learning styles and needs of children with severe learning problems and other associated sensory difficulties. Gar’inim serves a small, unique population, and therefore functions as an independent school open to the entire Jewish community, while being housed within another Jewish day school. It also provides therapeutic services that are necessary for its students to thrive. While this school program is independent and serves children with greater needs, any school can feasibly create a similar program to serve students whose learning needs are greater than the school currently supports.
A typical day for a Gar’inim student looks no different than that of any other student in the school. The only difference is that they may be in a multi-age classroom for some or all of their academic instruction. Depending on the number of children served, a multi-age classroom may be necessary to control costs. In the classroom, some students may use the very same textbooks along with the rest of the students in their grade level, albeit with modifications in testing, pace of instruction, or assignments. Other students may use alternative texts that teach the same material in a different format, while still other students may need to work with specialized remedial materials. It is important to acknowledge that all students learn in their own unique ways, and even within these classrooms the special education teacher must be equipped to teach to all types of learners.
When a day school has a Hebrew immersion program where only Hebrew is spoken in Judaic and Hebrew classrooms, it may be necessary to have an alternate track for students with language-based learning disabilities. While basic modifications and/or accommodations can allow for many students’ academic success in the general studies classroom, it may not be possible for the student to succeed in a foreign language. In this case, it might be necessary to offer a simultaneous option for students to learn Judaics and Hebrew in a classroom in which English is the language of instruction. This can also be accomplished in a multi-age room.
The number of students in the parallel classrooms is one of the most important factors for success. Gar’inim serves students with developmental disabilities and therefore limits the class size to five or six children. When serving students with moderate learning disabilities, a class size of up to 10 or 12 students is manageable.
The Gar’inim class uses an integrated curriculum. In addition to daily prayers, children learn about Jewish history and holidays through their daily academic activities. For example, when young children learn about the holiday of Tu Bishvat (the Jewish New Year for Trees), they learn the customs associated with the holiday and also learned the letters T (trees) and S (seeds). For a science project they plant grass seeds and for math they collect nuts and used them for counting exercises. The students then go on a field trip to the park in order to reinforce and generalize this information for application in other situations.
The teachers in our program have the flexibility to reinforce material repeatedly. Most of the students we serve thrive on structure and repetition. Although there are set times of day put aside by the teachers for academic instruction, the reality is that this kind of reinforcement occurs regularly throughout the school day. The teachers take advantage of every activity planned (or sometimes unplanned) to reinforce what the children have learned.
It is important to note that some students may need the alternate classroom for particular subjects yet not for others. For instance, a student may struggle in the language arts class while having the highest grade in the math class. A successful program will have the flexibility to design a school day that is most appropriate for each student.
A program we call the Learning Lab provides support to children who are able to remain in a typical classroom for the majority of their academic subjects yet need the assistance from a special educator in a smaller class to be successful in specific subject areas. Oftentimes, the subject requiring the most support is language arts. A student with a language-based learning disability needs to be given tools specific to their learning deficits to allow them to be successful in all other classes that rely on reading, spelling and comprehension. The Lab is a separate language arts class that provides all the support listed earlier in this article. The student may need a lab class for language arts or math, or possibly both. However, for the rest of the day the student would be able to remain in typical classrooms. Our program also offers “homework hour” twice a week after school in order to provide additional tutorials for specific subject areas as needed.
Providing these alternatives does carry extra costs. Reducing the teacher:student ratio increases the overall cost of the classroom, and there is also an initial outlay for additional materials to enhance student learning. While in an ideal world there would be no separate pay structure within the school for students who receive different levels of support, this is not always possible. More and more schools have imposed additional fees for these support services. In a full or half day parallel track, families pay a higher tuition. When services are offered on an as needed basis it is more difficult to determine the specific costs for each student. We have found that students in the Lab receive enough extra support during the school day that it is reasonable to charge a flat fee for the year for those students who require the extra support services. The fee includes the after school support, whether or not the student participates.
For any of these programs to be successful, there also needs to be a professional development plan in place for the entire staff of the school that focuses on differentiated learning and understanding the emotional and behavioral issues that may arise when serving a more diverse population. When the school administration believes in the abilities of all the students learning in their building, the stage will be set for every child in the school to be successful.
The first few years of any new program such as this can be challenging. The community has to be persuaded that such a program is truly needed and beneficial. Parents will need to have trust in the school in order to send their children to a new program which has yet to establish a history. The school has to be prepared to deal with the attitudes of the parents who chose the school for its high academic standards and fear that the curriculum will be “watered down” once children with learning difficulties are allowed to attend the school. And the teachers have to be convinced that their workload will not increase with a more diverse population of learners.
These issues should all be addressed through open forums and community education. Teachers, parents and students should have the opportunity to express their concerns, as well as learn of the overall benefits to the school of creating an environment where all are welcome.
In the first year of our program, all initial concerns faded away within the first few weeks. The teachers came to realize that our highly qualified special educators were readily available to answer their questions, and even to offer advice on all of the children in the classroom, not just those receiving support services. By the middle of the first year, we found that the typical classroom teachers would routinely come into the Gar’inim classrooms in order to borrow material or to ask for advice about a particular student. The attitude shift of the general parent population was also evident as they became aware of the subtle changes taking place in their child’s classrooms that allowed for a more enriched educational environment for all students.
Above all, the students in the school learn a lesson that can only be taught by example, that everyone is created in G-d’s image. Our schools need to actively practice what they preach. It is not enough to teach Jewish values and compassion. We must show by example that each one of us is unique, and shares in the inheritance and shaping of our Jewish future. ♦
Linda Zimmerman is Executive Director of the The Amit Program, a Jewish central agency providing support to children with learning/developmental disabilities and their families in Atlanta, Georgia. She can be reached at Lzimmerman@amitatlanta.org.
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