Plans for a Successful Inclusive Southern School Year

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Each year all of the religious schools that make up our ISJL education network gather in Jackson, MS for our annual education conference. We bring in speakers from all over the country to ensure that all of our congregations have access to the resources they need to make their schools great, no matter the size of school.

A common struggle many of our congregations encounter is how to serve students with special needs when both human and financial resources are limited. We brought in Dori Frumin Kirshner from Matan, an amazing Jewish organization that provides the solutions and strategies that are desperately needed in this area. Dori is the Executive Director of Matan and was so well received at the conference that we invited her to have a guest blog post.  In the South, we like to share our treasures with others and it’s clear that we can all learn from Matan.

At Matan, we often say that “special education is just really good education”; that inclusion is much more about attitude and much less about a particular program.  So how does a community go about becoming more supportive of all types of learners? How can it get from “well intentioned” to truly inclusive?

It doesn’t matter if you’re a relatively small school in a quiet town in North Carolina or a massive one in Dallas – the “how to” is essentially the same: education, advocacy and empowerment.  Here are the questions you should be asking yourself as you plan for a successful, inclusive school year:

  1. Professional Development: Have you included a session on differentiated instruction during your staff orientation process? Could someone from the local community volunteer an hour of his/her time to get the conversation going? You can then continue the conversation during regularly scheduled staff meetings throughout the year.
  1. Financial Resources: If you’re like pretty much every other synagogue in the country, you are probably concerned about finances. It’s time to think creatively! Have you spoken with your Rabbi about his/her discretionary funds? Have you explored conversations with trust and estate attorneys in your community? Have you considered hosting a fundraiser to generate targeted giving and raise awareness (perhaps during February, Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion month?). Remember to get your budget requests in EARLY so your synagogue board can plan for inclusion!
  1. Behavior Challenges: When children come to Religious School at 4:00 after having already had a full day or school, or on a Sunday morning after a sleepover or late night movie, everyone presents with some form of unique need. Oftentimes, our teachers find challenging behavior the toughest manifestation of classroom management. Have you thought about what distractions exist in your classrooms? Do you have a space for kids to take a break? Do you provide fidgets in your classrooms (and your staff meetings!) for students who focus better when their hands are busy?  Have you thought about what’s really going on that is causing a child to act out?  Remember that there is a function behind every behavior!
  1. Communication: Are you already a model environment for supportive inclusion? Great! How do people know that? Do you rely on word of mouth, or is it on your website and in your print materials? Remember, parents of children with special needs are used to being told “no”.  How do they know that you are someone who is going to say “yes”?  Be transparent, have a statement about inclusion on all of your materials and make sure there is someone to contact when someone does need special accommodations!
  1. Secret Talents: You know that second grade teacher who is teaching Jewish holidays? Did you know she also has a degree in special education?  Did you know that the 4th grade Hebrew teacher is an Occupational Therapist by day?  Have you talked to your staff about their “secret” talents? Have you asked them for ideas about what changes might benefit the students in your school?  Find the hidden treasures living amongst you!

In short, take a page out of Southern Jewry, where everyone bands together and has everyone’s best interests in mind.  You are making Judaism relevant to ALL of your members.

So now that you know what to do, let’s include y’all!

 

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