February 2, 2011
No Jewish child left behind
I recently visited the Westchester Fairfield Hebrew Academy in Connecticut and saw in practice what should be standard in Jewish day schools.
Students with special needs are welcomed into the school through its PALS initiative (Providing Alternative Learning Strategies), enabling them to maximize their academic, social and emotional potential and offering them the myriad benefits of a Jewish education.
An astounding one-fifth of the 220 students enrolled at the school are in the PALS program, and the school serves a broad geographic swath, including much of the New York tri-state area.
While the Academy is a destination school for parents searching for a rigorous and engaging curriculum taught by master teachers, it greatly appeals to parents of students with special needs who are identifying Jewish education as critical for their children. For these parents, a Jewish education cannot be — and should not be — mutually exclusive from the special needs education that a child must have to live a highly functional and productive life.
But why is it so that a choice must usually be made? Well, this is largely a rhetorical question, as the answers seem quite clear and obvious.
Special-needs education has not been a high priority within the Jewish community for multiple reasons, including high cost, needed expertise, a dearth of curricula and issues of academic and economic sustainability.
The question I ask is whether the Jewish community and the day school movement can afford not to accommodate these students and their families.
In an environment where school enrollments are closely watched as an indicator of the strength of Jewish education and the potency of Jewish community and continuity, every family demanding a Jewish education must be welcomed, no matter any physical or learning challenges that may be present.
Think of that family with a student with special needs searching for a formal Jewish educational setting. If none exists, or if one does but it is financially out of reach, that child goes into a more accessible, perhaps less expensive mainstream setting. And the Jewish community, today and for the future, has lost an opportunity to shape a young Jewish mind.
The issue is so compelling, not only for educators and for families of students with special needs, but for all of us in the Jewish community. And this includes philanthropists, benefactors and others who can be making the promise of a Jewish education accessible and meaningful for everyone.
Last year, the Ruderman Family Foundation brought together funders and advocates for special needs education at the ADVANCE conference in New York City to underscore and bring it to the forefront of the communal agenda.
This is recognized by the four movements of Jewish educational practice, represented by RAVAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network, the Solomon Schechter Day School Association, the Yeshiva University Institute for University-School Partnership and PARDeS (Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools). At the North American Jewish Day School Conference that will convene in Los Angeles beginning on Sunday, Feb. 6, special-needs education in the Jewish community will be a prominent issue discussed, studied and debated.
The big solution won’t be apparent when the conference closes on Feb. 8. But if we begin and advance the conversation, as I am doing here, then we will be that much closer to living up to our Jewish ideals, which command inclusiveness, mutual understanding, and that we, as Jews, help and look out for each other.
Marc Kramer is executive Director of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network.