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In the spirit of the 2017 Ruderman Inclusion Summit in Boston November 19-20, Prizmah interviewed the leaders of Carmel Academy’s innovative PALS (Providing Alternative Learning Strategies) inclusion program: Nora Anderson (Head of Schools) and Jonathan Holub (Director of Educational Resources/PALS Program).

What is unique about Carmel’s inclusion program?
Nora: When our PALS program started ten years ago, we wanted children with special needs to be provided with the same opportunities, goals, and standards of typical children. PALS is fully integrated with the rest of Carmel Academy and is a natural outgrowth of our school’s commitment to meeting the individual needs of all students. Children in PALS learn tools, skills, and strategies to achieve independent success in the classroom. In addition to highly-trained special education teachers for secular and Judaic studies, our on-site staff includes a speech therapist, an occupational therapist (and a sensory gym), school psychologists, and an Orton-Gillingham reading specialist. I think the combination of on-site services and a philosophy that prioritizes integration is unusual.

Jonathan: There are very few models of special education where students have access to typically developing peers. We have three models for providing education to PALS students: self-contained classes where we provide direct special education in a small setting; co-taught integrated classrooms where PALS students and core Carmel students learn together and assignments are modified accordingly; and mainstream classes for full core classes when PALS students are ready for independent success. The beauty of PALS is that one student could be in all three types of educational settings over the course of a school day. As students transition we craft careful plans to slowly remove the scaffolding.

How did the program begin?
Nora: Like all great initiatives, PALS started due to passion, vision, and determination. We had a board member with a child who had special needs, and we realized that much as we wanted to, the school was not equipped to address the child’s needs. We knew that to be true to our mission, we needed to be responsible for children who learn differently. Our school was growing and we were moving from a synagogue to a beautiful 17-acre campus of our own. We opened PALS alongside our move to the new campus ten years ago. The first year we had three students enrolled in PALS. Currently our school enrolls a total of 125 students K-8, including 55 kids in PALS.

Were there concerns about the impact on typical students?
Nora: Initially, we heard some concerns that focusing attention on special education needs would somehow diminish the rigor of the school or give rise to behavior issues or the need to slow classes down when a PALS student was integrated. The truth is that over time we no longer hear those concerns. People recognize that good special education is good education, period.

Jonathan: Having PALS students participate in the school community as “full members” means that students develop a rich appreciation for what a community means for all its members. PALS teaches empathy and understanding to all students. Just as the campus is religiously diverse by design, with a built-in commitment to understanding differences, the educational diversity enriches the school community. Socially, it opens up leadership opportunities for all students, and it is a huge demonstration of the school’s values.

Does having an inclusion model put extra burdens on your faculty?
Jonathan: Carmel’s teachers and educational leadership takes professional development very seriously. Across the school, we are celebrating our 20th year with a “Daring Campaign,” as in “what might we dare to become.” The teachers who choose to work at Carmel are always looking to better themselves, this is something ingrained in the culture of the school. Just as we want our students to be the best versions of themselves that they can be, our teachers want to be the best teachers they can be.

Nora: We start inclusion in places where it comes easy—lunch, art, recess. Starting in second grade, the co-teaching model pairs certified Special Education teachers with classroom teachers. When full mainstreaming takes place in grades 6-7-8, we generally know what each child needs to succeed. For faculty this means that they can deliver whatever strategies are appropriate within their classroom, and if there are additional or specialized needs, we can customize a program of study. Our goal is to make sure that children with special needs feel part of the community, and the faculty are critical partners in that.

What advice do you have for schools interested in replicating your model?
Nora: PALS is a program that can be replicated, with four conditions: 1) The culture of the school has to fit with the idea of an integrated Jewish educational experience for all members. 2) There needs to be no fear of being labeled a “Special Education” school. 3) Everyone should recognize that Special Education enhances education of every child. 4) Board members need to be willing to invest time and resources. A program like PALS is exceedingly expensive. Your board and professional leadership need to be 100% on board, and you need someone with a Special Education background to manage the program.

Jonathan: 1) Shift your lens to view all students as individuals as opposed to a monolithic classroom. 2) Take a team-based approach. Include parents, students, teachers, specialists and share data to keep everyone informed. 3) Create a culture in your school community that is accepting of differences.

How can you provide these services in a financially responsible way?
Nora: The cost of running a program like PALS is astronomical. Tuition for PALS greatly exceeds regular tuition in our school and includes all services such as PT, OT, etc. Parents make great sacrifices to send their children to PALS, often travelling great distances. Many families are able to get reimbursed through their allocated Special Education funding. It takes considerable time for the program to pay for itself, so any financial feasibility plan must take a long-term perspective.

We do a lot of fundraising geared to PALS because we do not want to turn anyone away. We continue to work hard to gain recognition from broader Jewish philanthropy—it is a struggle.

What’s a book you love?
Nora: Innovator’s Mindset: Empower Learning, Unleash Talent, and Lead a Culture of Creativity by George Couros. This was a book I read recently along with our faculty. We drew out of it some really relevant findings for Carmel. It validated our vision that children leave our school more curious than when they began.
Jonathan: The Courage to Teach by Parker J. Palmer. It is a book I read as a graduate student and I reread every few years as an educator.