Pushing Jewish Day Schools to Be More Inclusive of Special Needs

The recent Kveller post by Benay Josselson on her son’s positive and enriching experience at Rockland Jewish Academy made me hopeful about the prospect of a full, participatory Jewish day school education for special-needs children. Her tone, which greatly contrasted with her blog post from one year earlier when she assumed it would be tough to find a Jewish day school that would be able to work with her son who had been diagnosed with autism, reflects the steps the day school field has taken to make inclusion an educational priority. It also reflects more specifically the community that is being created at Rockland Jewish Academy under the leadership of Nellie Harris. (Full disclosure: Nellie is a Fellow in RAVSAK, the Jewish Community Day School Network’s, inaugural Head of School Professional Educational Program, which mentors exceptional new heads in the first years of their headship).

We already know Jewish day schools play a crucial role in helping develop the next generation of Jewish leaders, but now we see schools of all sizes taking a closer look at their policies on special needs students. As an organization committed to advocating the myriad benefits of Jewish day schools, this is an issue I have seen start with rudimentary programs and expand into mission-driven work, with full support from leadership and the community, at a growing number of schools. Overall, this is a huge positive for families of all types.

In the past, day schools have struggled to meet the educational needs of students with a variety of learning disabilities and other social, emotional, behavioral or health challenges. Today, great strides have been made, and more and more schools are working on identifying opportunities to increase access and developing an inclusive process for teaching students with far-ranging capabilities.

The ultimate goal is for children to become integrated into and embraced by the Jewish community, regardless of need. That’s what parents want, what the kids want, what everyone wants — to be full members of the community. Truly, a day school community can only call itself that when it reflects the make-up of the entire community from which it sources its members.

At the recent RAVSAK/PARDES Jewish Day School Leadership Conference, we dedicated an entire learning track to “Special Needs and the Diverse Classroom” to better educate those within our network and help them develop plans and strategies to become truly welcoming and inclusive institutions. Many attendees noted that it was an eye-opening experience that allowed them to gain a deeper understanding of the range of students characterized as special needs and learn new approaches to special needs inclusion.

All students benefit socially, emotionally and intellectually when children with special needs are educated alongside their classmates. With February designated as Jewish Disability Awareness Month, it is important to raise awareness not only about the psycho-social needs of students but the expanding response of the larger Jewish day school community and their ongoing commitment to make Jewish day school education a gift that all can share.

Certainly, this work is far from over; there are too many students for whom day school is not yet an option due to their specific challenges. But we have to recognize the small steps with which we begin a long journey, as it is by following the footsteps of others that change can gain momentum.  

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