HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

A School Within a School that Meets the Needs of Jewish Children Who Learn Differently

TOPICS : Inclusivity

The children in M’silot are the Greenfield Hebrew Academy’s best advertising for this innovative and nationally recognized program for students who learn differently. A “school within a school,” M’silot (“pathways” in Hebrew) provides children with an educational environment in which they become empowered learners, maximize their potential by building new skills, and develop a positive self image – all under a Jewish umbrella. Six years ago the program began with eight first grade students and now has eighty-five students who are currently in or have completed the program. M’silot gauges its success by the outstanding growth and development of these students.

“I feel special in M’silot because I am learning to read more. We do fun things. We play sentence games and card games... My teachers help me to learn. If we have trouble, our teachers help us.”

Having witnessed the frustration of many Jewish parents who recognized that their children required a specialized learning environment, but who wanted the religious and cultural components of a Jewish day school, administrators at Greenfield Hebrew Academy sought a way to address both. At the same time, Jerry and Elaine Blumenthal, former GHA parents, wanted to create a legacy in the name of their late son, Matthew, to honor a remarkable life that had triumphed over disability. Thus, in 1999, the Matthew Blumenthal M’silot program of the Greenfield Hebrew Academy was made possible by a generous grant from Elaine and Jerry Blumenthal.

The M’silot program is designed for children who have average to above average intelligence, who learn differently, and who have been diagnosed with a mild to moderate learning disability based on testing conducted by a licensed psychologist. The students are not making expected progress based on their potential; and their needs cannot be met solely within the confines of the regular classroom, even with support services. They have an uneven cognitive profile exhibiting one or more processing deficits in areas such as: receptive and expressive language, visual processing, auditory processing, visual-motor skills, or memory.

The program has been very positively received by the community and by M’silot parents. In fact, many ask, “What are the keys to success?”

• Small teacher-pupil ratio: With a 1:5 teacher-student ratio, M’silot classes emphasize strategies to help the students remediate their weaknesses and utilize their strengths.

• Highly trained and dedicated teachers: Teachers have specialized training in programs such as the Orton-Gillingham reading method, which is specifically designed for children diagnosed with dyslexia or reading disabilities.

• Well-developed curriculum: All programs used for specific remediation are research-based.

• Individualized goals for each child: An Individual Educational Plan is written for each child which includes strengths, needs, learning style, short-term and long-term objectives, strategies and modifications, and assessment results.

• Speech and language pathologists and occupational therapists: These specialists are part of the program and work with students and faculty to determine what types of intervention and/or accommodations are required.

M’silot begins in kindergarten and currently goes through fourth grade, and both General and Judaic/Hebrew studies are conducted in modified, self-contained classrooms. However, since another important goal of the program is to encourage interaction among all students, children in M’silot join their GHA peers for many non-academic times of the day (physical education, music, art, computer, lunch and recess). They take part in all grade level special events such as field trips, the first grade Siddur presentation and the second grade Chumash program; and they join in school-wide programs including Friday afternoon Oneg, the Model Seder and the Purim Carnival.

One of the challenges in designing this program was how to incorporate Hebrew language. We have found the techniques that are important in teaching general studies subjects are also important when teaching Hebrew:

Hebrew Language

General Studies

Multisensory and repetition

Multisensory and repetition

Insure that readiness skills are mastered

Insure that readiness skills are mastered

Small student/teacher ratio

Small student/teacher ratio

Use assessment to set individual objectives

Use assessment to set individual objectives

Immerse in a Judaic rich environment

Immerse in a language rich environment

When students are ready to leave the small structured environment, they may enter the school’s Transition Program for fourth and fifth grades. In the Transition Program, students attend General Studies classes with their grade level peers, while receiving support from a Transition teacher who stays in constant contact with each student’s classroom teacher. For part of the day, Transition students are taught a modified Judaics/Hebrew curriculum, called Jewish Living for Life, which emphasizes Hebrew reading and writing skills; learning prayers and their meaning; understanding our Jewish heritage, holidays, and history; and instilling a love for Israel.

The future of M’silot includes the addition of a fifth grade self-contained class for those who are not quite ready for the mainstream, and continued support in the upper middle school grades. The school’s first M’silot class – children who began in first grade – has already entered middle school and receives continued support as needed. In fact, as they matriculate, M’silot students put into practice the many learning strategies and self-awareness tips that they have learned in the program, and often match -- and sometimes surpass -- the academic achievement of their GHA peers.

The most frequently asked question by prospective parents is how does being part of M’silot impact the child’s self-concept? What we have learned is that once a child meets with success, the message changes from “why is this so hard for me and easy for those around me?” to “I can do this, I can learn, I am capable.” The child understands from our “All Kinds of Minds” unit that everyone, including parents and teachers, have strengths and also weaknesses which require specific strategies. The student leaves M’silot understanding his/her learning style, has strategies for success, a sense of empowerment and at the same time is instilled with Jewish pride.

Phyllis Rosenthal is the founder and director of M’silot. She has her Master’s in Education (Learning Disabilities) and has been with Greenfield Hebrew Academy for 11 years. She began as a resource teacher before the creation of M’silot.

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Special Education in Jewish Community Day Schools

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