HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


The Community Model for Special Education Services

by Arlene Remz and Sue Schweber Issue: Special Needs

Eleven years ago, the challenges faced by special needs students in Jewish day schools were nothing short of daunting. It was an era when many children with special needs either struggled to say afloat, were accepted only to be “counseled out” later, or were considered “simply not day school material.” Parents who insisted on day school for their children soon discovered that the schools often did not have the special education resources required to meet the needs of students struggling to learn basic skills and also support their teachers to facilitate classroom learning for a variety of learners. In addition, services they could access at their local public school were disconnected from the classroom experience. Frustrations abounded for the teachers, the parents and most of all the children themselves.

Is Your Day School Ready to Welcome a Wide Range of Learners?

  • Is your faculty open to implementing classroom practices—differentiated instruction, universal strategies, modifications and accommodations—that will improve learning for all students and increase success for those with special needs?
  • Are you willing to carve out time for teachers for meetings, professional development, coaching and collaboration?
  • Do you have someone to coordinate your school-based support services?
  • Are you able to set aside a budget for professional development?

Gateways’ work with our partner schools rests on the following assumptions:

  • All students can learn.
  • Student learning is the responsibility of the entire school.
  • The school’s values embrace serving a wide range of learners and promote those practices.
  • Effective education is based on regular and transparent communication between day school administrators and staff and Gateways’ staff.
  • Student learning is enhanced by collaborative planning and problem-solving leading to the implementation of solutions that are carefully monitored and refined.
  • Teachers can solve learning challenges faced by their students when provided with the appropriate time, consultation and coaching as well as administrative and professional development supports that foster their acquisition and use of evidence-based practices.
  • Teacher practices that enhance student learning are related to content enhancement, strategy use and differentiated instruction intended to meet students at their individual learning level.
  • Effective and efficient student learning requires the development of self-regulation, including the maintenance of motivation to learn.
  • Student learning is facilitated by both strategy use and the provision of differentiated instruction within the classroom setting to foster maximal independence and student development.
  • Students can be mentored and gain the skills to assume responsibility for their own learning.
  • Professional development is key to both faculty development and building school capacity to serve a wide range of learners.
  • The schools, the parents and the community, along with Gateways, all take financial responsibility for funding the program.

In Boston, a small group of parents and educators were disturbed by how many students were falling through the cracks. What was missing in area day schools, they believed, was a team of special education experts working together with the schools, teachers and students. It was a formula they believed held out the best hope for the students who were struggling to stay afloat.

With three day schools on board, the Jewish Special Education Collaborative (JSEC) began sending speech-language pathologists (SLPs), occupational therapists (OTs) and reading/learning specialists into the schools to provide specialized services above and beyond what the school could provide. JSEC had a single goal in mind: providing the services to the students with special needs to keep them in their schools and supporting their teachers. And they had a dream: maybe someday children who otherwise would never have the chance could attend day school.

Six years later, JSEC merged with another grass-roots organization, Etgar L’Noar, which had already established a stand-alone Sunday school, bar/bat mitzvah training program and teen youth group for youngsters with moderate-to-severe needs. Now Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, supported by Boston’s federation, Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the Ruderman Family Foundation and other foundations and private donors, directly serves nearly 200 children with special needs—preschoolers through high schoolers—in ten area day schools and countless more in other Jewish learning settings. This number soars when you add the students impacted by the professional development and coaching Gateways provides their teachers, helping transform their classrooms into more welcoming places for a wide range of learners.

Today Gateways’ day school program works collaboratively to provide support services above and beyond what the school offers. We employ a cadre of 25 SLPs, OTs, reading/learning and behavior specialists who help to build on-site special education teams. Our staff includes two coordinators who manage services, supervise therapists and ensure communication with the school and parents. We provide professional development for teachers, and in addition, we coach teachers to help make modifications and accommodations and differentiate classroom instruction.

Delivering special education services in day schools goes well beyond dealing with students with learning challenges. It’s about providing the best practices for all students, supporting student learning with a team of professionals and giving teachers the tools to deal with a wide range of learners. It’s also about preserving a child’s self-esteem while we’re working together on creating the program that’s right for him or her. Last but not least, it’s about raising other children’s awareness that the student next to them may look or sound or learn differently. And that’s OK.

Each situation demands a unique “formula” of support, the right mix of services allowing each child to thrive. The day school program coordinators play a crucial role in this model, building the team of professionals at the school and collaborating with the existing day school support system. Only by working as a team can we build the open communication and trust needed to foster change together and achieve full integration. Now, when we share strategies with a teacher, it expands her capacity to use those best-practice skills to successfully teach all her students, including those with greater needs. The good news: As your school community builds its team and capacity, you’ll find you’re able to include children with greater learning challenges.

Our schools have learned that using a central agency enables them to build the team efficiently, since few schools could hire the needed specialists directly as well as coordinate and build a program and work with the teachers and school as a whole. Building trust and respect among the educators, agency specialists, parents and students has allowed our agency to become a community resource for the Boston-area day schools.

But in order to really understand what Gateways does, we need to take you into class with us to see what our modifications, accommodations and differentiated instruction actually look like:

Shoshana, a fourth grader, is often crying at lunch or making someone else cry. In the classroom no one wants to be her partner for projects since she is difficult to work with and always forgets to bring her materials. She will be rude to teachers and staff and have no idea why they are angry. Shoshana works with a Gateways SLP on social cognition in a social skills group. Some of the questions they address include, Can you say the same thing to a teacher and a peer? What words should you use and what does your voice communicate? What is body language? How do people expect you to behave? How do your unexpected behaviors make other people feel? In addition, they work on problem-solving skills, including role-playing multiple solutions to problems. The SLP and teacher meet regularly to work out solutions to classroom social issues and help Shoshana practice new strategies. Together they created a system for her assignments, breaking projects into smaller steps with check-in dates.

Ninth grader Ari decodes Hebrew and English well, but often without understanding what he reads. He finds following classroom discussions and math word problems difficult. His written language is also well below grade level and he has difficulty finding the right word to say. Ari’s work with the SLP allows him to go sentence-by-sentence to understand the complex language and vocabulary in the texts and formulate a brief summary. The SLP meets weekly with the teacher to differentiate classroom instruction and assignments to enable Ari to access curriculum successfully. They focus on incorporating opportunities for explicit teaching of vocabulary, reading comprehension strategies and scaffolding written expression that will be helpful to all students, but essential for Ari. In addition, Ari continues to receive help with his assignments in the school learning center. All of his teachers meet monthly so that everyone reinforces the same learning strategies (i.e., activating prior knowledge, having a purpose for reading, note-taking and summarizing).

First grader David is not learning to read or write like the other students; he also balks at small motor tasks like coloring and cutting. Unable to focus on directions, he keeps jumping up from his seat. Nor can he stand in line without pushing the child in front of him. In partnership with David’s teacher, the Gateways OT designs a “sensory diet,” including such heavy-work calming strategies as carrying books to the library, wall push-ups and bringing in the recess equipment. By the end of a year working with his SLP, David is comfortable with the letter sounds and beginning pre-reading skills. What’s more, the entire class benefits, using the OT’s strategies to get their minds and bodies ready to learn.

David reminds us that students who receive the right help early on progress more quickly and often need fewer or less intensive services later. Now David is in third grade, and his teacher is surprised to hear he once had so much difficulty in school. In fact, our greatest successes are when our students, now able to implement strategies and advocate for themselves, no longer need our help, and when teachers continue to incorporate strategies into their classrooms that are helpful to all students. The fruits of the collaboration between the agency and the schools—a generation of stronger and more resilient learners, a working team of professionals implementing creative strategies and a better, more welcoming school and community—lives on, creating a more welcoming and inclusive Jewish future. ♦

Arlene Remz (right) is Executive Director of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education in Newton, Massachussetts. Sue Schweber (left) is its founding Day School Program Director. They can be reached at Arlene@jgateways.org and Sue@jgateways.org.

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