by Lianne Heller
Sitting across from me is a mother with tears welling in her eyes. Her son, Max, is struggling to keep up in school. He is in third grade and has recently been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD and anxiety. His teachers are saying he is falling behind in math and Hebrew. He doesn’t pay attention in class, he constantly loses all his assignments, and doesn’t do his homework. He struggles to transition from one activity to another. “But he has such amazing strengths,” his mother says, losing the battle against her tears. “He is kind and playful, reads voraciously, and loves playing with his puppy.” She dabs at her eyes with a tissue. “School has just become too stressful for him. He is becoming aggressive, defiant, and won’t, or can’t, follow directions. Worst of all – the other kids have stopped playing with him.” Max’s mother stops talking. She can no longer get the words out. Max’s father finishes what she has to say: “The school is saying they can’t serve his needs.”
So many parents have told me a similar story. Their dreams for their child to succeed and flourish in a Jewish community school have been dashed, and as the director of Sulam, a special education inclusion program at a Jewish day school, I am often their last hope to realizing this dream.
“How can they throw out a kid because he is different?” Max’s dad asks. “We are a Jewish family, and we expect Max, just like his friends and siblings, to have an equal chance of having a Jewish education.” Max’s mother, a teacher herself, says: “With some extra understanding and support I know he can learn successfully in any classroom. I know that Max will benefit from staying in his school and in his class,” she continues, “and I also know that the rest of the students can learn to be patient, kind and accepting of people with differences. That’s worth a lot!” Max’s father ends the discussion with one final plea:“What are his chances of staying connected to his Jewish roots when the Jewish role models, teachers and administrators reject him?”
The irony is that I have met with many heads of Jewish day schools from around the country who tell me the other side of this conversation. “We want to serve every student but don’t always have the capacity or resources when a child has more significant special needs. Our resource departments are already overloaded, with between 30 and 40 percent of our student body receiving extra services of some kind. We believe it is not ethical practice to accept or keep a child we are failing,” explained one head of school recently. “When we fail a student in a Jewish school that student often equates the failure with the Jewish experience. We end up doing the heartbreaking but ethical thing: We tell parents that their children will be better served in a different type of school.”
I understand both sides of the argument. The Torah teaches us that every person is valuable, that we are made Betzelem Elokim (in the image of G-d), and we know that in a minyan (quorum of 10) each individual counts equally. We are a people who takes care of our vulnerable, and treats one another with dignity, respect and understanding. We are Klal Yisrael, a nation that left Egypt together. We never singled out those with disabilities and left them behind as we escaped slavery. As a Torah ideal, every child should have the option to be included in their community school, and in classrooms with their peers to the greatest extent possible. The next generation needs to see this ideal in action if we expect it to create a future society that is just.
And yet I also know that realistically most Jewish day schools are not prepared for the special education challenge, or financial strain of providing the resources needed to successfully include students with moderate to severe learning differences. Instead, special education programs are founded to catch the students who would otherwise be dropped from their day school. Some special education programs consist of “self-contained” classrooms that are located in a Jewish community school building, operating separately and parallel to the host school. Others, like Sulam, integrate students into the host school’s general education classrooms, relying on the collaborative ethic of both faculty and leadership so that students are truly a part of the community. Both models are usually separately funded and staffed, alleviating the Jewish day school of the financial and educational burden of operations. The burden is transferred to the smaller special education organization which can only provide limited financial support to families who are twice impacted: by the challenges presented by a child with special needs, and the extraordinary cost of special education.
Neither model is ideal. Self-contained classrooms were established decades ago and rapidly grew in popularity in 2002 when the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into legislation. With increased accountability, public schools were forced to include the test scores of students with disabilities who were fully included in classrooms. Separating students with special needs into self-contained classes separated test scores from the general population, resulting in elevated scores for schools. Proponents of self contained-classrooms for students with disabilities will say that they provide targeted instruction and much needed smaller class sizes for students with special needs. The research however, does not support this assertion. Rather, the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) states that a regular classroom with proper supports is best for all students with disabilities. Quantitative studies reveal that the quality of instruction, engagement of students, and instruction time increased for students with disabilities in the general education setting. Inclusion programs, however, can only succeed in true partnership with the Jewish day school leadership, faculty, students and their parents. Retrofitting Max into a classroom that is not adequately prepared for him will result in frustration and confusion between general education teachers and special educators. A lack of partnership will most likely negatively impact Max as well as the rest of the students in the classroom. Stigmatization and isolation often results when teachers, special educators and students are not properly prepared and working together in community.
But the research cannot be ignored, and there is away to make inclusion work. According to IDEA, “Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible.” Furthermore, a study on the impact of students with disabilities on typical peers found that inclusion does not compromise a typical student’s academic or social outcome. In fact, the study shows that they actually make more progress because of the special education (which is simply good education) strategies implemented in the classroom.
If Jewish day schools and special education inclusion programs such as Sulam use the research as a guiding source, transformative change can occur. Working together, both general educators and special educators, each of whom have equal value, can partner to intentionally and proactively design classrooms and lessons that target all types of learners. Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an internationally recognized research based framework that guides schools to implement best practices in inclusive education. Through deep collaboration and partnership Jewish day schools and special education inclusion programs can become significantly more inclusive, thus reducing the load on their resource departments, increasing enrollment, lowering the cost of special education, and promoting shared resources. In short – everybody wins!
In a school in which such a partnership exists Max will be wholly included by his general education teacher and his peers, and receive the special education supports he needs. Everyone will value the diversity of every student, and together general and special educators will work in partnership to provide a curriculum designed to reach the wide range of learners in every classroom. The Torah value of loving one’s fellow person and treating each member of the human race with dignity and respect will be prevail among students, teachers and administrators. Families will not feel abandoned, and administrators may be less heartbroken (it is an unavoidable condition of the work). The sharing of resources will result in financial sustainability for both Jewish day schools and special education inclusion programs. And ultimately, Jewish education will be elevated by living and practicing our Torah values.
1. An informal survey conducted in schools in the Greater Washington area verified these statistics.
3. Hunt, P., & Farron-Davis, F. (1992). A preliminary investigation of IEP quality and content associated with placement in general education versus special education. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicapps, 17 (4), 247-253.
Hunt, P., Farron-Davis, F., Beckstead, S., Curtis, D., & Goetz, L. (1994). Evaluating the effects of placement of students with severe disabilities in general education versus special education. Journal of the Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 19 (3), 200-214.
Helmstetter, Curry, Brennan, & Sampson-Saul, (1998). Comparison of general and special education classrooms of students with severe disabilities. Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, 33, 216-227
5. McGregor, G., & Vogelsberg, R.T. (1998). Inclusive schooling practices: Pedagogical and Research Foundations. A synthesis of the literature that informs best practices about inclusive schooling. University of Montana, Rural Institute on Disabilities.
Lianne Heller is the Director of Sulam, an inclusion program in the Greater Washington DC area. Students with different learning abilities from K-12 are included at Berman Hebrew Academy, where they learn alongside their peers, participate in all school activities, and are embraced by the entire school community.