HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal
Meeting a Need by Addressing Special Needs
The head of a new school for students with language-based disabilities explains the kinds of conversations, choices and relationships that have informed the school’s vision and formation.
Tell us about the Shefa School, including whom it’s for, grades, number of students, as well as the process by which the school was founded.
The Shefa School was created out of the community’s experiences of students and families who loved being in Jewish day schools and all that’s a part of Jewish day schools—the sense of community and holistic Jewish environment—who were diagnosed with a learning disability and experienced the devastation that ensues from having to leave their Jewish day school where their siblings, cousins and friends are. Being in the large educational marketplace of New York City, families are opting for wonderful private secular schools that serve kids with special needs. And I heard countless stories of families who felt that their child’s special needs were then being very well served but their Jewish needs were not.
Shefa is for children with language-based learning disabilities, with average to above average intelligence, who are unable to be successful in a mainstream setting. This fall we’ll start with two classes of 12 students each, for kids ages 7-10, with mixed second-third and fourth-fifth grades, and then will be broken up into more homogeneous groupings during language arts and math classes. Eventually we’ll be a K-8 school. The reason we’re starting with second grade is that language-based disabilities often don’t get diagnosed until formal reading and writing instruction takes place.
How did you personally decide that it was necessary to create this school?
For me, it was having gone to Jewish day school and having seen students struggling; having worked in the JCC in Manhattan’s preschool where we had a wonderful inclusion program and then we were not able to send some of our students with special needs on to the Jewish day schools; and hearing many stories from friends and people in the community.
How did you go about creating this new type of school?
I began by doing a pre-feasibility study. I met with tens of parents who might have been interested in this program when their children were in this situation. I spoke with Jewish educators and communal leaders to gauge their interest and garner their insights. Ultimately I wanted to answer the question, Was this a good idea? After a summer of research, the enthusiasm was so powerful that it went from “a good idea” to “this must get done.”
Then I worked on a business plan and talked with leaders of other special schools. We looked at excellent secular schools as a model for instructional design and financial management for this kind of organization.
Why did you choose to create a separate school and not a program within a larger school?
I did have preliminary conversations with some day schools. In New York, the reality of a very tight and expensive real estate market made it hard to imagine building on a campus. Schools didn’t have the room and/or the will. While I would strongly encourage schools to explore ways to accommodate special needs students, there are many parents who are happy to have their students at a school where they won’t be seen as different. For some families it is a positive for us to be a separate school, a place where students will spend time repairing their damaged self-esteem and hopefully re-integrate into a mainstream school when they’re ready.
How do you decide whom the school cannot serve?
In many ways this was the hardest decision we had to make. There is certainly more than one group of students who need a school to serve them. But all educators warned us that in order to produce excellence we needed to focus on one targeted population and not try to serve everyone.
I spoke to many day schools in the community to find out who are the students leaving and where are they going. I discovered that the biggest number of students leaving were for language-based learning disabilities. It seemed the right place to begin. The idea for this kind of school has been discussed for some time. I think the reason it never got off the ground before is because people were worried precisely about this issue of having to leave out some children.
My inspiration has come from the famous expression from Pirkei Avot: “You are not required to finish the work, nor are you free to desist from it.” My hope is that someone else will open another program for other students, or we’ll be in a position in 5-10 years to open a second program.
What have been your experiences, successes and challenges, in finding and dealing with…
Excellent! We have found that there is a tremendous desire for our school, not just from New York City but also New Jersey, Long Island, Westchester and deep into the five boroughs. It has been amazing to see parents willing to take the jump, the leap of faith required to entrust their children with us. After all, Shefa has no history or track record for them to draw upon. The willingness of these parents to sign on speaks to their commitment to their children and to Jewish education.
Obviously like any nonprofit organization, fundraising is an uphill battle. That said, we have been extremely blessed with the response to our school. The larger Jewish community regards Shefa as filling a significant gap that truly requires attention. We’ve received support not just from people who are directly affected by this issue. The generosity that people have shown toward Shefa has been especially moving.
The larger Jewish community, including other day schools?
Jewish day schools have been terrific—remarkably welcoming and excited by our arrival. Shefa solves one of their problems: their inability effectively to serve some of their students and their sense of guilt and helplessness that follows when they don’t have adequate Jewish alternatives. We’ve been extremely careful to message that we have no desire to take away students that they can serve. In the future, we hope that those schools will be able to service more students, and we envision our role as offering a model and services that can enable mainstream day schools to serve a broader spectrum of students. We also intend to enable students to return to those schools after working with us.
The question about day schools being models of inclusion is often discussed. We are naturally in favor of schools being as inclusive as possible. That said, there is room in our community for both mainstream and niche schools. No one model is “right.”
We’ve received hundreds of resumes. Clearly the school has tapped into a wellspring of enthusiasm. The most moving notes have come from college students and beyond who themselves have a personal connection to these challenges, whether they’ve experienced them themselves or had siblings or friends with these challenges. Finding teachers with both strong special education credentials and Jewish studies background is a tall order, but we’ve succeeded in filling most of our positions.
Do you think that the Shefa model is replicable in other communities, or is New York unique because of its size?
I do not think the Shefa School is a solution across the nation in this precise form. It could be replicated in other large cities. In places with smaller communities, programs lodged within schools are probably the more appropriate scenario. But our hope is that while Shefa itself might not be the right model, we might have much to teach in terms of academic excellence and best practices and will inspire conversations within communities about what might be the best approach for increasing capacity to serve students with special needs.
In particular, we believe strongly in uncoupling Hebrew dual-language as a necessity for some students, particularly those with language-based learning disabilities, where language is often the area of challenge. In interviewing over 100 parents, what I witnessed was that the pain of taking their child out of a Jewish day school was not that they wouldn’t be able to conjugate Hebrew in the past tense. The pain was the loss of Jewish community, Jewish ritual, the study of Torah and the broader connection that Jewish day schools offer to children in their Jewish lives.
Most Jewish day schools see as their mission to serve all Jewish children; even if that’s not always realistic, schools often try hard to accommodate as many students as possible. Do you think there’s value in having more day schools be “niche” schools, whether specializing in working with special needs or in other ways?
I think the day schools need to understand it all as differentiation, and differentiation is not easy or always well done. Schools need to be able to tell parents, “We’ll meet your kids where they are.” There should be extra math groups for high achievers, and Orton Gillingham sessions for students with reading challenges. Schools need to devote themselves to sending the right messages and finding the needed resources. We often hear that schools can’t afford to do it, but I think they can’t afford not to do it. The choice is between the cost of bringing in the resources versus losing students and potentially their families as well. Schools should do this from the perspective of fulfilling their mission, but also there is a financial incentive to the school.
From your experience so far, what lessons have you learned that you’d like to share with the field?
On the positive side, I’ve been moved by the extent to which day schools have truly been thinking about, caring about serving their students. The down side is, there is not enough open discussion about these challenges. Schools should discuss them more openly and look to share ideas and resources. A lot of research is available about how to serve language-based disabilities. We have the opportunity to learn from experts and to look to secular schools that have succeeded in working with different populations. ♦
Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, founding head of school at the Shefa School in New York City, previously served as the director of The Saul and Carole Zabar Nursery School at the JCC in Manhattan. firstname.lastname@example.org
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