Adam is pushing the strings of his tzitzit through a small hole on the side of his desk.
"If you don't want to finish your work now, that's OK," his teacher, Chau Ly tells him. "You can do it later."
"It's easy. I just don't feel like it," answers Adam (not his real name).
He looks at the language arts workbook open in front of him, then flips it to examine the bar code. He wants to tell Ms. Ly about the cat next door. Ms. Ly, sitting right across from him, tells him he can do that when he finishes his assignment.
She begins to read him the next question.
He pulls at some rubber on his sneaker and says, "I don't need help, it's easy."
Ms. Ly sits back. Adam, an 11-year-old with learning and emotional disorders, begins to work quietly.
Finally, he finishes his assignment. Ms. Ly adds up the points he's earned for doing things like getting his head into the assignment and working independently, and sets the timer for his break.
He chooses to spend his time exchanging cat stories with Ms. Ly.
Adam is one of 12 students in Kol Hanearim, an organization that sponsors small classes in three local day schools for children with learning disabilities and emotional disorders such as attention deficit, oppositional behavior, depression or obsessive compulsive disorder. The kids spend part of the time in their own classroom and part of the time mainstreamed in regular classes. They also join their grade level for lunch, recess, art, PE and other activities.
The classes were founded last year by mothers of kids who had been either asked to leave a Jewish day school, or who chose to leave on their own. Their decision to stay and make something new is part of a slowly emerging trend toward integrating diverse learners into the Jewish day school milieu -- a move that everyone agrees has been too slow in coming, and has hardly begun to reach the students who need it.
For years, resources for kids with special needs have been scarce in Los Angeles' day schools.
While supplemental Jewish education programs -- camps, Hebrew schools, Shabbatons and parties -- have provided wonderful Jewish experiences to the region's special needs kids during the last 10 to 20 years, other cities seem to be making greater strides with their day school populations.
Parents who want their special needs children immersed in a Jewish environment on a daily basis often have to fend for themselves with minimal school support. Those able to afford it have hired tutors and shadows, which has not always been a successful solution. More often, parents have had to make the difficult choice to take the kids out of Jewish schools.
For parents in the Orthodox community, the decision to pull a kid out of day school means not only forfeiting a vital environment and education, but has social consequences, as well. Since the majority of Orthodox children attend day school, the child will be excluded from social circles, further marginalizing him or her.
With the explosion of day school attendance in the non-Orthodox sectors over the last 15 years, that decision is equally painful for Conservative and Reform parents who hoped to solidify a child's identity with an intense Jewish experience.
About 10 percent of the general population has a disability, and the Bureau of Jewish Education estimates that between 700 and 800 children with disabilities are in Los Angeles' 37 day schools, which serve 10,000 kids.
Over the past several years, schools and programs have opened up to teaching a more diverse array of learners in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and community schools.
"There is a growing awareness that day schools need to be accessible to the widest range of students possible, and schools are working hard to refine their mission statements and to make sure that whatever their aspirations are to work in this area, that they find the financial and human resources to make it successful," said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. The Boston-based group recently published a best practices report from day schools across the country.
Adam's mother says her son, who previously attended Vista Del Mar's Julia Ann Singer Center, a school near Culver City for children with severe emotional, learning and developmental disorders, has worked his way from a first-grade reading level to a fourth-grade reading level at Kol Hanearim. Whereas before he was surrounded by other kids with behavioral challenges, now he has nonchallenged children to model behaviors for him.
He is no longer embarrassed to wear a kippah and tzitzit, and can participate in class cooking projects without worrying about kashrut. He now asks to go to shul every Shabbat, and he even sings Hebrew songs in the shower.
While singing in the shower may seem like a silly benchmark, a positive or negative day school experience can have lifelong impact on a child's Jewish identity.
One woman who contacted Kol Hanearim told the story of her son, now grown, who had been thrown out of yeshiva and told he would never amount to anything. Today, he is working toward a master's degree in physics and is engaged to a non-Jewish woman.
Slammed Doors, New Opportunities
Kol Hanearim started its classes last academic year, soon after, Sharon Gindi was told that day school was no place for her son. She found that there were no good options for him within the Jewish community.
She got in touch with Kol Hanearim, a group of parents who had coalesced a few years before to offer Jewish programming to their children, who had left day schools. They had already met with principals in hopes of figuring out how to start classes for special-needs kids in day schools. But after two years, those meetings had gotten nowhere.
"I looked at my husband, and I said, ' All we need is a classroom and a teacher? How hard can this be?'" said Gindi, who will be speaking on this topic at a session at the United Jewish Community's General Assembly here this week. So she skipped over the organizational meandering and immediately got down to details.
The first door she knocked on that summer was at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, and within four weeks everything was in place -- the teacher, the classrooms, books and some bean bags and school supplies she bought at Target -- for Kol Hanearim to open its first class of five fourth- and fifth-graders.
Those kids are still at Hillel, and Maimonides Academy in West Hollywood hosts the first- through third-graders, and Etz Jacob Academy in the Fairfax area hosts the sixth- through eighth-grade class. Rather than having the kids switch schools when they move up a grade, the same cohort of students will stay with the host school until they graduate. While all participating schools so far are Orthodox, organizers hope to build a program that includes non-Orthodox schools, as well.
"The schools have been very embracing of the concept and have been meeting us more than halfway. They are committed to making this work for our kids," said Rabbi Levy Cash, headmaster and a teacher in the program.
Parents are thrilled with the results.
"What I saw most immediately is that when he came home, he had reserves," said one mother who asked that her name not be used to protect the privacy of her son.
"Before, he would come home and we would all have to run for cover, because we knew the torture was coming. As soon as he started at Kol Hanearim, he was able to come home pleasant, wanting to do his homework, not overwhelmed," she said. "They gave the child dignity, they gave him space to breath, they knew how much they could get out of the him in a day and then stopped when they knew they couldn't get anymore out of him. And he comes home a mensch. I have had my entire home life changed tremendously."
This mother believes well-meaning parents are hurting their kids by keeping them in regular classrooms with aides. Before Kol Hanearim, she spent $75,000 in one year on school, tutoring and a shadow, and her son was miserable and not learning to become independent.
"Most affluent parents are choosing that route -- tutoring up the kids, as if the kid is not already wrung out after a whole day of school with a shadow on top of him. It's torturing the children," the mother said. "I wish I could get up on a mountain top and say 'stop the madness.' There are at least another 40 or 50 kids out there who should be banging down the doors to get into Kol Hanearim."
But only 12 kids are in Kol Hanearim, perhaps because some parents fear the stigma, because of the limited scholarships available to offset the $26,000 a year it costs or because they just don't know about it. And even if enrollment reaches capacity -- eight students per class -- that still leaves many students hanging.
A Model of Inclusion
The sluggish pace of change is not surprising to Dr. Michael Held, director of the Etta Israel Center, which provides support for people with disabilities and raises community sensibility.
Yeshivas were originally elite institutions for a community's best minds, Held said. Only in the last 50 years have day schools become community-based institutions, a place where anyone can build a strong Jewish identity.
"The bedrock of the day school movement is founded on a premise that is poorly suited to the breadth of who the kids are." Held said. "But none of the schools have really retooled properly to accommodate the breadth of challenges, so as a result the schools are always dealing reactively."
While Held applauds the incremental changes he sees in day schools of all denominations, he has a grand, if still distant, vision for an interdenominational school that would not have "special ed" classes tacked on as an afterthought to the regular program, but would include in the same classrooms the full spectrum of students -- the severely disabled, those with mild developmental or learning issues, the typical, the gifted.
"When we look at regular education versus special education, in my point of view it's an arbitrary and dysfunctional distinction. Once you say, ' our school is regular but we'll take some special ed kids,' you're doomed," Held said.
Held holds up as his model Chime Elementary School in Woodland Hills, an LAUSD charter school that designates 20 percent of its 190 seats for kids with disabilities. The school does not pull kids out of classes for therapy or special sessions, but provides all services in the classroom.
While the school hires more paraprofessionals than most and has the benefit of being teamed with CSUN, Chime's budget isn't much more than the average public school, according to school director Julie Fabrocini.
"Where other schools have special classes or support for more significant disabilities, Chime has taken all those classes and opened them up and layered them on top of the whole school," Fabrocini said. "We believe that once you create a separate place to send people because they're different, you'll keep sending them there."
Chime works on a co-teaching model, where the general teacher teams up with a special education teacher, who splits her time among three or four classrooms. The team is rounded out by parent volunteers, student teachers and a cadre of paraprofessionals. Occupational, speech and physical therapists visit the classrooms regularly. Teaching teams meet for preparation for an hour every morning, and a debriefing every afternoon.
On a recent morning at Chime's kindergarten class, Jessie sat in a wheelchair, a special ed teacher by her side and an aide holding up her head, which kept flopping forward. The teacher asked the kids to hypothesize whether a small pumpkin would float or sink in a bowl of water. While other kids wrote their guesses in a booklet, the special education teacher put a glue stick into Jessie's clenched fist and helped her glue a "yes" sticker on the "float" option. (Jessie was the only child to guess right.)
The model of individualized teaching in a classroom setting benefits all kids and elevates the level of the entire school, Fabrocini said, which has made Chime an attractive option for many kids. Chime has space for about one in 10 students who apply.
Held thinks that with $10 million, a visionary plan and a willingness to take risks, the Jewish community can build a school on the Chime model.
For now, he admits, that vision is on the backburner as the Etta Israel Center, founded in 1992, works on more immediate projects: training 400 teachers a year from public, private and parochial schools in the Schools Attuned program, which trains teachers to teach according to the different neurodevelopmental strengths students have; running three group homes for 18 developmentally disabled adults; holding Shabbatons, summer camps and special events; and fielding parental inquiries then assessing kids and guiding families.
Etta Israel staff works with 25 students at YULA yeshiva high school who have learning disabilities or attention disorders, and it runs two self-contained classrooms -- one for developmentally disabled girls at Bais Yaakov high school and one for boys with learning disabilities at Toras Emes elementary school.
Etta Israel contracts with schools to supervise the many aids and shadows who accompany kids to school everyday, helping schools integrate those aides into the framework of the classroom. It has helped several schools achieve full inclusion for a few disabled students.
"Our goal is to create a world that is normal for the child," Held said, "and barriers and exclusion are not normal."
Pushing In, Not Pulling Out
In a sixth-grade classroom in Sinai Akiba Academy, a Conservative day school in Westwood, a teacher is reading aloud from "The Hobbit" -- rather quickly. Most students seem to be following along in their own books, but there is a strong possibility that some of the students can't process the language as fast.
Kathy Clyman, Sinai's director of learning support programs, isn't worried.
She knows that by the end of the day the students will have reviewed the chapters with a learning specialist -- or they may have already previewed the chapters before class.
She knows that the learning specialist, who regularly visits the classroom, has taken steps to assure that these students -- who might be dyslexic or have attention deficits or language barriers -- are not just keeping up, but actually benefiting from the work.
Clyman has run Sinai Akiba's resource room since it was started 20 years ago. In the last two years, Sinai has gone from having two resource teachers to six -- plus a part-time psychologist and many aides, focusing heavily on shoring up the program in the middle school.
Eighty kids out of the school's 560 students are enrolled in the learning support program. While kids are still pulled out of class a couple times a week for extra help, for the most part learning specialists come to the classroom, offering students support in the milieu in which they have to produce results.
Learning specialists work directly with each child, and advocate for him or her by consulting with the teacher, the administration and the family to formulate goals and strategies for the child's success.
The specialist may suggest, for instance, that a child lacking small motor coordination be given a laptop for note taking. Chronically disorganized kids get help keeping it together, and kids on the autism spectrum get the behavioral and social remediation they need to succeed in school.
The revamped program has entailed a philosophical shift for the whole school, with expanded programs for gifted students and a more individualized approach in all classes.
"For us it's not about special education, it's about trying to meet the needs of all our kids," said Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin, Sinai's headmaster for the past 30 years. "Most of education is understanding individual kids and what is best for them."
All the teachers in the middle school, and most in the elementary, have trained in School Attuned, a program that trains teachers to play to the different neurodevelopmental strengths of every child. Michelle Andron, a learning specialist, helps teachers develop curricula to follow through on Schools Attuned's differentiated approach, and helps teachers add remedial and enrichment options to lesson plans. She also works with gifted students, who often need as much individualized attention as those with disabilities.
But one school can't address the full spectrum of disorders, and while several other Jewish day schools have hired more learning specialists and are farther along than they were even five years ago, the needs still far exceed what is available.
A Community Issue
Parents of kids with special needs wonder where the organized Jewish community, specifically the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), has been all these years, why other communities across the country seem far ahead of Los Angeles in serving diverse learners.
Kenneth Schaefler, BJE's director of special education and psychological services, consults with schools and fields hundreds of phone calls a year to guide parents. The department runs a series of seminars for parents and programs for kids, and sponsors Lomed L.A., which pairs volunteer tutors with kids with mild learning disabilities. The BJE is also a partner in Hamercaz, The Federation's year-old information clearinghouse for special needs services.
But the BJE acknowledges that it has not done enough in this area.
"There is no money to do the programs. It's really a matter of fundraising," Schaefler said.
Last year the BJE set up a special needs task force to survey parents and schools. Next month BJE will publish the committee's report and recommendations for action.
"Our role is to do two things: one is to enhance the ability of schools to respond to students they encounter -- those in the schools and those who are not yet -- and secondly, help families become aware of what exists in our community," said Phil Liff-Grieff, associate executive director of the BJE.
But any program, he says, will require grassroots support in order for it to succeed.
Parents agree, but say that top-down commitment from community leaders is also a prerequisite.
"There has to be community support, and parents are going to have to demand it," said Manette Cogan, a Kol Hanearim founder. "The community needs to get together and say we are not going to turn these kids away."