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“If 20% of our American population has special needs, can we afford to continue to exclude this significant segment of our Jewish community in our schools, synagogues, and programs?”

This question, posed by Shira Ruderman, Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation, became the central theme behind her impassioned presentation to all conference attendees, which focused on a comprehensive vision of inclusion and mindset.

Twelve year ago, the Ruderman Family Foundation began a partnership with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies to form the Initiative for Day School Excellence, which ensures that Boston-area Jewish day schools are equipped and supported to be more inclusive of children with special needs and disabilities. Over the past several years, the Foundation has been expanding its efforts to bring a social justice message about inclusion throughout the U.S. and Israel – in and out of the Jewish community.

The story that was shared by Shira about the Ruderman Family Foundation’s transformative vision and mission about inclusion supported our effort at the conference to help Jewish day schools share, learn, and celebrate their own stories about inclusion. Prizmah is committed to the message that Shira conveyed, knowing that this segment of our population deserves to have a spotlight in our narrative.

We invited Shira to address our attendees because we wanted the conversation about learning differences to be about what schools can do instead of what schools cannot do. Shira accomplished this goal by framing the idea of inclusion as a mindset, not as a program (you can learn more about how to adopt the inclusive mindset by viewing her presentation here).  This distinction is fundamentally empowering and essential to schools, because it means that they can make a difference even if they do not have funding.

As educators, we know that our schools have many children who struggle. Shira challenged everyone in the room to carefully consider whether we are doing enough for them. Are there children still being turned away from day schools because we cannot meet their needs or because the only way we can meet their needs is if parents spend thousands of dollars above tuition?

Shira demonstrated how shifting our mindset toward inclusion yields better results for ALL students, simply because it leads to better teaching. Every leader has the opportunity to take some small steps to make a difference. So strong is our belief that communicating and acting upon the value of inclusion is incumbent upon all of us, that we decided that this presentation needed to be given to the full conference audience and not simply offered as a session (though several sessions on this topic were offered).

We continued where Shira left off by asking Alan Oliff, Director, Special Projects at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, to dream big with us about what is possible for inclusion in Jewish day schools.

Why do think it was important for Shira Ruderman to address a thousand Jewish day school professional and lay leaders at the conference?

The Ruderman Family Foundation has been an incredible philanthropic organization that has a vision for providing inclusion to the Jewish community and beyond. The passion Shira brings creates conditions for people to understand why it’s essential for our schools to engage in this work. Her presenting to a thousand people makes us all reflect on how well we’re doing in creating the “big tent” in our Jewish community. We do know that this has been a challenge in the past – some have been included and some have not, and it’s easy for us to forget or not think about that. Shira’s presentation gave everyone the opportunity to reflect and learn more about how to make our Jewish day schools a place where everyone feels a sense of belonging.

The Ruderman Family Foundation and CJP’s inclusion initiatives began with Boston-area Jewish day schools and have been expanding in recent years beyond New England. What do you think is possible for Jewish day schools and communities in other cities if they begin to grow in this area?

I think you have to begin with the vision for inclusion of all students. The ultimate vision is how might we do this for all families that want their children to have a Jewish education? We know that’s a big challenge, but the next question is: what’s the road to getting there? Every community has the ability to go some distance down the road to inclusion that they want to go down. In Boston, we’ve made great progress, but we’re not fully where want to be and I think other communities have started this work and made strides as well.  But every community needs to start by committing to a holistic vision and then set out to create the conditions to be inclusive of different types of children and learners. Belief is not enough to create conditions; conditions rely on programmatic strategy and figuring out how to advocate for and receive the necessary funding. There are many other aspects to this, but I see there are possibilities in every day school for welcoming students with diverse learning abilities and for learning ourselves how to do this well. Boston is not unique in the fact that this can only be done here – we do know of others who are working on this and others who want to. If a school or community takes the time to assess where it’s at, they will find ways to move forward and include more students successfully.

What are some examples of commitments that Jewish day schools and communities can make to be more inclusive?

There are different levels of commitment. The starting point begins with the assumption that a school and community want to welcome more diverse types of students. They could commit to examining the support infrastructures required, so that once students arrive, there are the requisites in place for supporting those students. Asking what kind of students are not in the school that you want in the school will help you identify what is needed to support them. Once this is identified, it can also guide how schools and community agencies might work best to create the conditions for increased successful inclusion across schools. Hopefully, these actions will create interest from donors and philanthropic organizations to support and fund this important work. There are also instances where resources can come from public funding – in fact, there is federal funding that follows students with special needs in some states, regardless of which school they attend.

Another example of making a commitment is using strategic professional development in schools to create a broader knowledge base across faculties and leadership about how to best serve students with diverse learning needs. The B’Yadenu Project, for example, was created for the purpose of implementing whole school change in the areas of teaching and learning practices for all students. The focus can be on offering targeted professional development to faculty and administrators that develop teaching and learning strategies and cultural practices that support the school experiences of different types of students.

What do you think the current mindset is for day schools about meeting the needs of diverse learners?

I think the current mindset is that everyone believes we should meet the needs of diverse learners. The issues that arise are:

  1. Schools worry about the feasibility of what they are trying to do. “Do we have the knowledge base and skill capacity to do the work with a wide range of learners, and are we setting ourselves up for failure to take on students whom we don’t have the ability to support?”
  1. Schools worry about how they will pay for it. “We want to do it, but we don’t have the same funding as public schools.”
  1. Schools also worry about how being more inclusive will impact the perception of their educational quality. “If we start taking on children with special needs and disabilities, maybe our school will be looked at as a ‘special needs school’ and we won’t be viewed as intellectually stimulating or innovative as a Jewish day school is expected to be. We worry that maybe we’d be watering down the curriculum.”

The most important thing for schools to do is to step back, assess where they are at against a vision of where they want to go, and then be very practical and strategic in how that will happen. I don’t want to suggest there is one answer in every place – it is contextual – but there are some general elements to focus on: infrastructure, creating the conditions for support, and making sure the faculty and administration are knowledgeable enough using PD as a lever, to name a few. But you have to consider what will work for your school. Whatever you do, don’t stop at “we want to move forward but we can’t” because these are our children and this is our community.

If it were up to you, what would be true for children with learning issues in our Jewish day schools?

If funding was not a challenge, every child and every family who wanted to have a Jewish day school education would find a place where that could happen and they could be successful (success defined as feeling included), that this was their school, their place. Ideally, the faculty and administration would feel excited about their roles, leadership would feel that they have enough financial support to make it happen, and all families would feel integral to the school. I’d love to see conditions set to create the “big tent” – a place where everyone feels a sense of belonging.

We may not be able to do it now for every child, but wouldn’t we want to dream about doing it? Across Jewish communities in this country and Canada, there are major changes taking place in schools, and more teachers have the capacity to work with a wider range of students. The mindset is not only there, but is driving the improvement.
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What is your school doing to be more inclusive? What does it dream of doing? Share your thoughts on social media using the hashtag #Prizmah17.