Welcoming Special Needs Students
One Jewish day school in Kansas cut its tuition in half. Another school, in Oakland, Calif., grew its endowment 15-fold. And a third, in Houston, succeeded in recruiting families from as far away as New Jersey, Venezuela and Israel. These institutions embraced bold, even risky moves in an effort to generate revenue and boost enrollment, which has been dropping at many schools outside the ultra-Orthodox community.
According to recent Forward analysis of reports by the Avi Chai foundation, non-Haredi day schools are in a state of stagnation or decline. The Schechter Network of Conservative Judaism has lost 20 schools and 35% of its enrollment since the late 90s. Unaffiliated schools, commonly known as community schools, are barely holding steady. For day school proponents, the shrinking numbers and shuttered institutions represent a blow to the idea behind Jewish education, the notion that Jewish day schools are a key to Jewish continuity.
The economic downturn is a major factor in perpetuating the downward trend, with unemployed or underemployed parents simply unable to make hefty tuition payments. But there are other issues at play. In making the case to the many Jewish parents who see day school as an option rather than as a mandate, day schools face myriad obstacles: how to accommodate those with special needs, how to retain students beyond elementary school and how to provide academic offerings on par with private prep schools.
Each day this week, the Forward will be featuring a story of a day school that met such challenges and reversed its fortune.
KEHILLAH SCHECHTER ACADEMY (K–8)
Enrollment: 245 students
Tuition: $20,000 to $22,000
Percent on financial aid: 60%
Time and again, parents of special needs students say they haven’t opted out of Jewish day school but Jewish day schools have opted out of serving their children.
At the Kehillah Schechter Academy, in Norwood, Mass., about one-quarter of the students are learning disabled. That’s an unusually high number for Jewish day schools, which have historically been reluctant to enroll special needs students because of the cost involved.
“Our philosophy is that every child who wants a Jewish education and whose parents are willing to partner with us, and if the resources are available, they should have it,” said Marc Medwed, head of school. “Not every school feels that way.”
Read the Forward’s entire week of coverage of creative solutions to problems facing day schools, including Naomi Zeveloff’s story on Making Day School Affordable.
Kehillah is able to integrate special needs students in large numbers because of its unique classroom-instruction style, called differentiated learning. The practice — in which students work on variations of the same assignment depending on their learning style — is not new to public schools. But when Kehillah implemented it 10 years ago, it was one of the first Jewish day schools to do so. Today, it has caught on among a handful of other Jewish schools nationwide.
At Kehillah, which is affiliated with the Conservative movement, differentiated learning is used in both secular studies and Jewish studies. For instance, when students are tasked with writing an outline for an essay, some are asked to write the outline on their own, while others are given prompts in the form of questions to create the outline; still others have the outline placed before them. All three groups must write an essay, but the means to the end are different.
“KSA has created a culture which is committed to including students with diverse learning needs, and has trained and supported teachers two work with these students,” said Arlene Remz, director of Gateways, a Boston-area organization providing special needs services to Kehillah and other Jewish day schools.
According to Medwed, about 40 students from Boston area schools have transferred to Kehillah in the past three years because of its approach to classroom instruction.
Kehillah’s student body includes one child who was rejected from every other day school in the Boston area. “I think schools were scared of him,” Medwed said. “We took him in. He is now in seventh grade. He is one of the brightest thinkers in the group.”