Creating Educational Collisions: School Partnership for Inclusion
Google and other Silicon Valley giants have become well known for creating workplaces that increase the chances of personal interactions, with the intended outcome of increased innovation and creativity—and recent research has begun to support this approach. A 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review reported that “creating collisions—chance encounters and unplanned interactions between knowledge workers, both inside and outside the organization—improves performance.” Creating opportunities for these kinds of creative interactions between staff at school, let alone between educational organizations, is a challenging task; the often-siloed work of teachers in classrooms, and schools as stand-alone institutions, makes this even more of a challenge for those of us who work within the confines of a school building. And yet the benefits of interaction are exactly what we found when our two schools entered into a new and exciting partnership by sharing space.
The relationship was born out of convenience. For 30-plus years, Netivot HaTorah, a Modern Orthodox day school in Toronto, lived next door to a Reform day school. Due to low enrollment, the latter sold its building and moved north, while Netivot, due to an increase in student population, needed more space. At the same time, Zareinu, a school for students with special needs, partnered with Camp Aim, a summer camp for the same student demographic. They purchased the Reform day school’s building, renaming it Kayla’s Children’s Centre (KCC). Since they could not use the entire space and needed the rental income, Netivot rented part of the upper floor and gym.
Over the year we began to run joint programs, first around chaggim, then around a specific fifth grade project where Netivot students designed a Torah video game specifically for their KCC peers. These were beautiful moments, with each student bringing out the best in the other. We spoke about more such interactions, but the ideas were limited to short engagements and programs. Then these experiences began to move our thinking.
Several years prior, Toronto had a stand-alone Jewish day school for special needs education called She’arim, which folded. This left a void in the day school system for students whose needs were beyond the scope of the traditional day school’s dual curricular program. Other schools tried to compensate by expanding their special education programs, including Netivot, and while their impact was positive, the scope was understandably limited.
KCC began running satellite classes at other day schools to support some of these students. They were partially integrated, and these students came to the KCC campus for therapies one day a week. The satellite classes were a great solution for dozens of families who desperately wanted their children to remain in Jewish day schools while receiving support for their learning needs. Still, the model didn’t work for all students, and KCC recognized the need some students had for closer proximity to the main campus where they could have ongoing access to clinical support and more flexible integration in their host school’s educational program.
The lay and professional leadership of Netivot and KCC decided to explore a closer partnership. We looked at two Jewish day schools, in Florida and Washington, DC, where programs for special education were integrated into a host school. The result in each was a much deeper level of program integration for students, with seamless transitions between host and special-needs classes, and a dramatically increased level of programmatic offerings for students in the special education program. The host school benefited from the deeper level of knowledge and understanding the special education program and its professionals had, as well as opportunities to keep students within its walls who would otherwise have had to leave due to high academic demands of their program. Having Netivot and KCC next door to one another created the potential for just such a program. As it happened, KCC was looking to create a new satellite program for students in Grades 1-3, and intended to approach Netivot as a potential host. With the US model in mind, our close physical proximity, we looked to create a more organic and seamless educational experience for the upcoming school year.
This year, Netivot and KCC are offering two partnerships as a way to leverage our close physical proximity and close the gap for students who want to remain part of Jewish day school while requiring greater learning and/or behavioral support. Students in a single grade 1-3 class will be given the opportunity to integrate into academic classes, appropriately matched to their individual learning plan and level of independence, while still having access to all the therapies and supports that KCC offers. These students will have the opportunity to participate in the broad range of Jewish and communal experiences at Netivot. Our partnership has already allowed us to support two existing Netivot students who previously struggled to meet the standard dual-program goals; they will be in Netivot for half a day and at KCC for the other half.
We have also decided to extend the partnership to grades 4-6 for students who have greater needs, like global developmental delays or Down Syndrome, who are unable to integrate into academic classes. These students will benefit from KCC’s academic setting and will now have the opportunity to integrate with Netivot students through non-academic activities, where and when possible. This model allows for the removal of boundaries and offers students the academic and social experiences according to their needs, irrespective of the physical environment of their school.
Our experience has shown that the sharing of space can bear tremendous fruits for the good of our communities. Just like at Google, the interactions that result by way of physical proximity reveal opportunities and relationships that would have not existed otherwise. Necessity, and physical proximity as well, have been for us the mothers of invention.