Kids With Special Needs Find Increasing Opportunities

By Sarah Kricheff

Published August 26, 2005, issue of August 26, 2005.
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Educational programs for students with special needs in Boston-area Jewish day schools got a significant financial boost this summer.

In June, Combined Jewish Philanthropies announced a $2 million investment to enhance and expand the schools’ special education programs. The money comes from the Peerless Excellence Project, a CJP initiative funded through a $45 million donation — given anonymously last fall — to strengthen Boston’s Jewish day schools.

CJP works with 14 day schools in the area, eight of which offer services for children with such special needs as learning disabilities, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, cerebral palsy and autism-spectrum disorder. The new funds will be distributed to CJP-affiliated schools over the next five years, focusing on three components: increasing the number of special educators; funding the geographic expansion of the Jewish Special Education Collaborative, which brings specialized services, such as speech therapy, into the classrooms, and working with Etgar L’Noar, an organization that offers services to students who have moderate to severe disabilities.

The expansion of Boston’s programs is representative of a slowly growing trend around the country, in which Jewish education is becoming more accessible to mentally and physically disabled students.

“Children with special needs are often not accepted into Jewish schools, but I think the common trend is going in the right direction and children with special needs are being accommodated more often,” said Linda Zimmerman, director of the Amit division of Atlanta’s Center for Jewish Education and Experiences. Founded in 2001, Amit provides assistance to some 90 learning-disabled students in eight local day schools. Amit oversees Gar’inim, a community-based program that offers services to children with moderate to severe learning and developmental disabilities. The three-year-old program intends to add one grade per year; a third grade class will be added in the fall.

“The [growing] trend is out there,” Zimmerman said, “but we see it mostly in the larger areas [rather than] smaller communities.”

Chicago is another such metropolitan area. Keshet, an organization founded in 1982 by a group of Orthodox parents, offers educational, recreational and vocational programs for special-needs children and adults who wish to remain within the Jewish community. The parent-run organization serves greater Chicago with a Sunday school, a summer camp, residential housing, a career training and job placement program, and educational programs for elementary and high school students.

Keshet partners with three schools in the Chicago area, where students with developmental disabilities are integrated into standard classes, and educational programs are tailored to meet each child’s specific needs. Services include classroom aides, speech therapy and occupational therapy; students also work with special educators and with social workers.

Jay Leberman, former principal of the Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook, Ill., was a key figure in bringing Keshet to the school in 1988. He is now head of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School in Wynnewood, Pa. Continuing his mission of increasing accessibility of Jewish education to students with special needs, Leberman helped build OROT, an independent special education program founded in 1999 by Gail and Elliot Norry. OROT operates in five Jewish day schools, including the Perelman Jewish Day School, and serves grades kindergarten through eighth grade.

The Keshet program “exploded in the Chicago area,” Leberman said, but in contrast, “the Jewish day school community [in Philadelphia] hadn’t addressed the issue of kids with special needs.” OROT provides services for children with a number of challenges, including severe learning disabilities, developmental delays, behavioral issues and Down syndrome. The program aims to create an inclusive environment within the academic and social life of each school.

“My goal is to create an environment where it is more normative than exceptional” to have students with special needs in the school, Leberman said. “We have kids with Asperger’s, and kids on the autism spectrum, and we include them as much as possible on a social and academic level, based on their individual profile.”

Asperger’s syndrome is a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum. Typical characteristics include poor social skills, inappropriate emotional reactions, difficulty interacting with peers, obsessive tendencies and delayed motor skills. Unlike classic autism, however, people with Asperger’s often have strong language abilities and a high level of vocabulary and can excel academically.

Children with special needs “offer something that you don’t find in other schools, and the impact goes both ways,” Leberman said. “It teaches [typically developing] kids chesed, or loving kindness.”

“Jewish kids who desire to be in a Jewish day school should be accommodated as much as possible,” he concluded. “It’s an obligation the Jewish day school has. The core of the issue is that every soul is important and every child matters.”

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