Special Education in Jewish Day Schools: Lessons from the Public School Experience

In my view, schools should strive to serve as many students as possible. Schools should focus on how its programs can achieve this goal rather than on the deficiencies of the children.

At that time public schools were implementing an evolving federal mandate to create “least restrictive” programs for students with special needs, in contrast to the conventional wisdom that these students would be most successful when educated in separate classrooms with other students like them. In the early years after the law was passed, the focus was on creating new programs within the public school buildings to serve populations that had not been served in public schools before. Most of these new programs continued to be separate, albeit now located in close proximity to regular school programs. Over the following years, a growing number of students were placed in these separate special education programs with limited integration in general school settings following the notion that most mainstream classrooms were not the right settings for children with different abilities. While there remained lingering concern that the additional resources required for public special education programs might impact the overall school program quality, the mandate prevailed and the required resources became simply a fact of life for the public school administration.

It was in this context that the parents of a child with developmental disabilities stunned me by requesting he be placed in a regular classroom at their neighborhood school, rather than in a special education classroom in a school across town. I was taken aback. No one had ever before suggested to me that a student with such cognitive challenges could succeed in a “regular” class. While today, public schools are widely successful in integrating a very broad range of learners in their classrooms, at that time, most public school special education professionals were proud of the new separate programs, generally located in elementary or secondary schools with limited “mainstreaming” components.

It was a pivotal moment for me. My conservative administrative head wanted to dismiss the idea as untenable, while my instincts were to consider how it might be possible. It would be easier to continue along the well established “equal but mostly separate” road for students with special needs. However, I started to question the prevailing practice and began to reflect on my own actions and beliefs. Moreover, these parents forced me to ask the question, “Why not?”

I realize that this transformation was a logical extension of my development as an educator. At the time it was a jolt and an uncomfortable self-reckoning about how I had been operating as a special education teacher and administrator for the first 15+ years of my career in public education. That moment and much of my work thereafter as a school leader was informed by asking that “Why not” question many times over.

When I started to work two years ago in the Boston area Jewish day school community, I was quickly confronted with some of the same issues from my early public school administration days. As the director of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) Initiative for Day School Excellence, one of my key responsibilities has been to oversee a major project on improving practices for special needs programs in Boston area Jewish day schools. Quite honestly, this challenge was an important reason why I decided to take the position. I was intrigued by the great interest in special education and more importantly the passion that was evident in this community-wide effort.

My initial impressions left me both energized and concerned. It was clear that the community and the Boston-area day schools had taken positive steps to create improved supports and serve a broader range of students. Through a strong partnership between CJP and a visionary and supportive funder (Ruderman Family Foundation), the Boston area Jewish day schools special education initiative had developed and great changes were in progress. More students with special needs were being served and many of the schools were invested in this work. However, it was also clear that practices were still in the formative stages and in some ways resembled practices from my earlier “separate but equal” public school days. Schools were developing new staffing patterns and infrastructures for supporting students. A Jewish special education regional support agency (Gateways) was in its early stages of development for providing services to the area day schools and other Jewish educational programs.

While Gateways and Boston’s day schools were leading examples of change in serving students with a range of learning abilities, in the day school context there is no legal mandate to do so. The legal mandate had compelled public schools to change even though they were not sure how to do it. In recent years it has been suggested that our Jewish communities have a moral mandate to make Jewish day schools accessible to all. Should we educate all students in our Jewish day schools? Or instead, is a Jewish day school best viewed as an independent school that should define who it can serve and stay with its successful formula? Does a Jewish day school have an obligation to contribute to a communal effort to maximize the involvement of students who wish to partake in this Jewish educational option?

These questions about Jewish day schools remind me of the issues raised in the public education context a number of years ago; some concerns impeded progress while others enabled breakthroughs for new thinking and practice. It is important that we find ways to open up a dialogue across the Jewish day school community about how we best support all students in our programs and what we might learn from each other as we conceptualize the most effective and accessible Jewish education options for all of our students and families. Hopefully we can learn from the public school experience as we create best practice in Jewish day schools in Boston and elsewhere.

In my view, schools should strive to serve as many students as possible. Schools should focus on how its programs can achieve this goal rather than on the deficiencies of the children. I am not an absolutist about a “one way” model for making this happen; however, I do believe this conceptual framework can be used as a foundation for considering the questions and ideas that will be raised herein. I will also confess that my experience on this journey has led to a deeply seated belief that too often concerns are raised in order to dismiss a more inclusionary approach before even considering that such an approach might be the best for all of our children. In fact, the experience in public schools and in Jewish day schools committed to the possibilities of integrated practice has confirmed that many of our students with special needs can be educated alongside peers if school communities are willing to open themselves to new ideas and practice. High performance standards need not be diminished in making our schools work for all students. Schools that successfully serve a diverse population of learners can become models for how we want our Jewish community to evolve in the future.

Undeniably, there are very difficult hurdles that exist in creating more inclusive Jewish day schools and communities. It will not be an easy road to find ways to establish a real sense of belonging for an ever broader range of students. As we approach these challenging issues I want to suggest a few ideas for consideration in hopes that they spark further discussion and ideas.

Establish a Whole School Approach for Serving All Learners

If a school (public or private) creates a culture of inclusion and a set of professional practices for all staff, then the long-term outlook for creating successful practices will be significantly advanced. While the impact of federal and state public mandates for serving students with special needs were thought to create some of the most profound changes in 20th century US education, initial implementation relied heavily on special education expertise outside “general education“ practice and operations. It took many years after establishment of the public school mandates for the field to recognize that the responsibility for serving students with a wide range of abilities was a whole school responsibility.

In Jewish day schools, we can avoid this longstanding public school issue. We have an opportunity to utilize special education expertise in the context of whole school responsibility. That means that school heads and school boards recognize the responsibility to actively determine how the whole school will practice and to make this a central piece of the school’s core values.

Create a Coordinated Professional Development Approach Focused on Teaching and Learning Effectiveness

Too often schools move from one initiative to another without thinking about the total sum of the impact. Professional development becomes single topic focused programs or sessions (e.g., cooperative learning, technology integration, global education, etc.) that do not persist in the ongoing professional discussions of school teams and the whole school. In terms of improving practice for serving all learners, a good professional development plan should incorporate knowledge development about best teaching and learning practice as well as ongoing reflective practice discussions to enable modifications to existing practice. In addition, targeted special education professional development programs linked to real work in classrooms is important as part of the knowledge base for serving students with learning challenges.

Develop a Comprehensive Plan for Increasing the Revenue Flow for Serving Students with Special Learning Needs

Let’s be honest, it is going to cost more money to do this. Increases in the number of staff, professional development, and unanticipated expenses will add to the expenses of the school. Today many day school families pay for special education services above and beyond the costs of tuition. Numerous day schools have staff who serve students with learning needs. The reality is that the cost of school tuition and these additional expenses are likely to increase in the years ahead. This challenge is both an individual school and day school community issue. A couple of ideas:

  1. Make sure all existing public funds are being accessed (e.g., Title I, transportation reimbursement, direct special education services in some states, etc.)
  2. Consider establishing a community special education affordability plan for families
  3. Partner with foundations to support innovative programs; if possible, focus on areas that can be sustained and/or will not need to be sustained when funding ends
  4. Work with other faith-based partners to improve the flow of funds for serving students in non-public school settings

While public schools (boards, administrators, and faculty) eventually accepted the notion that serving all students was an important part of the landscape, early practice led to a set of beliefs and practices that created separate programs for serving children with special needs. It has taken years for public schools to adopt integrated approaches for serving all students. As Jewish day schools wrestle with how to improve practice and create options for a broader range of students, we can learn from the public school experience and avoid some of the obstacles that impeded progress along the way. Let us commit to working together, within and across communities, to create the best possible Jewish educational options for all of our children and families. It is essential that we take on an approach that will result in positive integrated educational opportunities for future generations of students in our day schools. ♦

Alan Oliff is Director of the Initiative for Day School Excellence at the Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, Massachusetts. He can be reached at alano@cjp.org.

Alan Oliff
Special Needs
Knowledge Topics
School Policies and Procedures
Published: Spring 2011