HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Special Education: A Parent’s Perspective

TOPICS : Inclusivity

“Mommy, may I do my homework now?” “What?! – er, I mean, excuse me, what did you say?” “Mommy, I said, “May I do my homework now?’ That way, when we get home, I can go play outside.” This was a conversation in my minivan one afternoon two weeks ago, and this has become the question du jour.

Last year, my son, ZJ, was a frustrated and unhappy second grader at a fine public school near our home. Last year, ZJ had homework every night that he (and I) struggled with, often for one or two hours each night. Last year, ZJ was just plain not getting it – no getting addition of two and three numbers, not getting telling time, not getting reading comprehension, and not getting spelling, and not getting play dates. In May, we had an IEP meeting in which we were told what we knew we were going to be told: ZJ was not going to be promoted to third grade. “What would be different the second time around in second grade?” my husband wanted to know. The response was honest but unacceptable: Nothing would be different; we’d just have to hope that ZJ would catch on to the material.

From the moment he was born, I knew that there was something special about him. Special – different, not necessarily special – good. At 18 months he began to walk, at 3 ½ he began to talk intelligibly. After an MRI, after visits to neurologists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and other –ists, the conclusions were auditory processing and sensory integration issues. These issues caused problems for him when he was in a classroom full of kids, or when the school fire alarm went off (the school psychologist took ZJ out of the building before each fire drill so that he could function the rest of the day), or when teachers or peers spoke too fast for him. ZJ’s pediatrician told my husband Dave and me that ZJ is a between-the-cracks kid – he cannot function in a classroom full of kids, but he did not belong in the self-contained class of mostly Downs’ Syndrome kids, either. We would need to keep close tabs on his progress in school. We did.

ZJ began kindergarten at the local public school in August, 2002. Our older son, Daniel, has attended Charlotte Jewish Day School since kindergarten, but Dave and I decided that ZJ needed the IEP resources from public schools more than formal Jewish education at that point. We also felt that ZJ would not be able to keep up with the rigorous pace at a private school. At the neighborhood school, ZJ’s kindergarten teacher was new to kindergarten and pregnant with her first child. At the end of the year, ZJ was promoted to first grade. His first grade teacher was concerned with his academics, but with the school OT, SP and Resource teachers’ help, ZJ marginally made it to second grade. You already know what happened next.

A friend asked me to consider the new Ein Gedi program at Charlotte Jewish Day School. Dave and I talked about it with our parents, with Ein Gedi parents, with CJDS director, Mariashi Groner, and with Tina Roppolo, the Ein Gedi teacher, but it was an easy decision.

Ein Gedi was conceived over a period of years and became a reality during the summer of 2004 when CJDS moved into its new building, attached to the newly remodeled Levine Jewish Community Center. It is an oasis in the big learning world and currently serves four children – four delicious, sweet, autistic, bi-polar, and between-the-cracks-no-more children whose lives have blossomed since entering Miss Tina’s calm, yet fun place. For Jewish kids with behavioral, social, and emotional challenges, this is a place where they can find peace and learn to function well in a world of confusion. Each child is expected to live up to his or her potential. After each child completes an assignment he/she gets to pick how to “chill” before moving on to the next assignment. For ZJ, it’s reading and rocking, or just turning around in circles. In this class, ZJ can self-calm and self-regulate. In this class, ZJ is getting it.

A ration of two teachers to four students is obviously one reason that Ein Gedi is so effective. However, the teachers are the main reason. Tina is an exceptional young woman who is very attuned to each child’s strengths. She constantly and firmly, yet lovingly, builds on those strengths to form new ones. And, she encourages the kids to help each other. During the first days of school, Tina and her assistant worked with ZJ on the goals we had developed. After seven days, ZJ was tying his shoelaces by himself. After ten days, ZJ was helping other kids tie their shoelaces.

One day during the second week of school, the first fire alarm resonated throughout the school. I happened to be at the school speaking with one of the rabbis, and I panicked. Where was ZJ? Could I get him fast enough before a meltdown occurred? As I headed down the hall, there he was. He was concentrating on walking, holding Miss Tina’s hand, eyes forward as though he were executing a soldier’s drill. I turned around, hid behind an open door, and watched. He never noticed me. He was trying so hard to keep himself calm in the storm of clanging and many other kids close to him.

Tina told me that she would not take her class out early before drills because they all needed to know how to react during a real alarm. The class had rehearsed fire drills several times and the students were now performing beautifully. Outside, I cried on the Resource Room Administrator’s shoulder, but this time they were tears of joy.

Last week, the fire alarm went off again. There I was, in the school parking lot. I counted on seeing ZJ come out holding Miss Tina’s hand. But no, not this time. This time, ZJ came out after the first grade class, by himself and just before Miss Tina, whose two hands were holding brave hands younger than ZJ’s. He saw me in the parking lot and with a big smile on his face, he said, “Mommy, I did it all by myself.” “ZJ, how do you feel about what you just did?” “Mommy, I am so proud, and so brave!” “I think so, too, ZJ!”

ZJ’s recent quiz about telling time had every question correct but one. He raced through the math section, adding three numbers without difficulty. Subtraction? No problem. He is now using his toy cash register to practice multiplication skills. He writes beautiful stories, and is working hard on spelling. He said that Miss Tina’s chart makes it easier for him to write stories because he can write the who, what, where, when and how on the chart then make a story out of it. ZJ is a voracious reader too.

ZJ has been mainstreamed into the third grade class for all specials – music, art, technology, and physical education – and lately for social studies. His third grade peers are excited when he comes into class and thrilled when he succeeds. A few weeks ago, Coach Nixon threw a pass to ZJ who caught the football and outran his classmates to score a touchdown. Everyone cheered! You should have seen his beaming smile when he told me about his touchdown.

Last year, ZJ wasn’t invited to any birthday parties from school. Next Sunday, ZJ will attend the fifth birthday party he’s been invited to since the school year started. A couple of weeks ago, ZJ asked a friend to come over to our house, his third play date this school year. I told the mom that we’d keep it short, just an hour, since ZJ still engages primarily in parallel play, and I wanted the play date to end with his friend still wanting to be friends. She said that an hour was about all he had for a play date, because they were planning to go out for dinner. Keeping my distance, I listened to the boys talking and laughing together, and I watched them playing tag, Frisbee and football. I totally forgot that I needed to get ZJ’s friend home. ZJ had his first real play date!

Now I see what I have known all along; that there is something special, special – good, about ZJ and everyone who meets him knows it too, by the huge smile on his face, the hugs that he gives, and the happiness and pride that he feels whenever he accomplishes something new. Thank you Tina and Mariashi for allowing ZJ to be a successful, proud, happy child. Our son has a home at school. ZJ is finding his way.

Andrea Gamlin is a parent at the Charlotte Jewish Day School

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Special Education in Jewish Community Day Schools

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