November 9, 2006
Jewish day schools short-change kids with special needs
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.)