November 9, 2006
Jewish day schools short-change kids with special needs
(Page 3 - Previous Page)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.