By Miriam Diamond, Gateways Coach (Former)
This article was originally published on eJewish Philanthropy.
Tamara and Angie never imagined that their son Austin could attend a Jewish day school. Born with neurofibromatosis, a condition that causes tumor growth on nerve tissue, Austin has negotiated developmental delays, motor challenges and attention difficulties throughout his life. With busy schedules and high academic standards, Jewish day school always seemed unattainable for Austin.
Tackling the Day School Inclusion Challenge
While most Jewish day schools share the vision that all their students should reach their full potential, too often, these schools are not equipped to meet the needs of children who experience significant learning challenges, emotional and behavioral disorders, or physical and developmental disabilities. Even the best efforts of capable staff can’t always compensate for environments that aren’t designed to support a diverse range of learners.
The Alfred and Gilda Slifka Foundation recognized the inaccessibility of Jewish day schools for many families like Austin’s. In 2017, the foundation partnered with Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies and Gateways: Access to Jewish Education to launch the Slifka Inclusion Initiative, a decade-long program to support Jewish day schools in Greater Boston in creating and implementing a sustainable, replicable model of inclusive education for students with significant learning challenges.
Since its launch, the Slifka Inclusion Initiative has funded pilot programs in two schools: MetroWest Jewish Day School (MWJDS) in Framingham and Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston (SSDS) in Newton. A Slifka Inclusion Initiative grant has helped these schools hire additional personnel, acquire classroom materials, and provide teacher and staff training to carry out these goals of inclusion. Unlike in many stand-alone programs where students with substantial learning needs are largely separated from typical learners, the Slifka Initiative aims for the so-called “Slifka students” to be included in conventional classrooms, learning alongside other students as much as possible. In fact, these “Slifka students” do not see themselves as such at all; in their own eyes and in the eyes of their peers, they are as much a part of the class and the school as every other student.
The first step in realizing the Slifka Inclusion Initiative’s vision was to offer professional development for teachers and staff at the pilot schools to prepare them to be more effective in designing and delivering lessons to diverse learners. To put this training into action, each school’s “inclusion facilitator” and classroom teachers would work alongside a cohort of school support staff, including speech, reading, and math specialists, some of whom were hired with Slifka Inclusion Initiative grant funding. Using funds from the grant, the schools could also purchase new classroom furnishings — standing desks, wobble stools, yoga balls — and curricular materials to provide for different learners. With these structures in place, teachers at the two pilot schools could begin their work of inclusion in earnest.
Expanding Access to Jewish Education
Shortly before Austin entered first grade, Tamara and Angie learned that the Slifka Inclusion Initiative would be coming to MWJDS and they began to hope that enrolling Austin in day school might, in fact, be possible. After visiting MWJDS to meet with the staff who would be working with Austin, the family “fell in love” with the school. With the Slifka supports, Austin would be able to access the aid he required: assistive technology, reading, social, and academic coaching, coordinated with occupational and speech therapy not covered by the grant.
“Austin’s first year at MetroWest exceeded our wildest dreams,” Tamara and Angie revealed, reflecting on how quickly Austin connected with his new teachers and classmates. Lynne Holmes, a newly-hired language arts specialist certified in teaching students with dyslexia, was one of the educators working with MWJDS Slifka students like Austin. “Our approach here is to ‘love them into learning,’” Lynne said. “It’s so necessary for us to meet each of our students where they are, accept them, and work from there.”
Another current Slifka student, Jake, began kindergarten at Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston a few years before the Slifka pilot program. Jake had strong social skills but struggled with focus and attention. When he entered first grade, Jake’s learning needs began presenting additional obstacles, and his teachers and parents looked to the Slifka Inclusion Initiative pilot program for the academic and behavioral support that would enable Jake to succeed at Schechter.
Jake’s team met often to assess how he responded to learning and behavior plans, adapting and revising them to ensure that they continued addressing his unique concerns, interests, and goals. “He loves his teachers,” shared Jake’s grandparents, Shoshana and Chaim. With the Slifka support, Jake is making significant academic strides. “He wasn’t able to read just a year ago, and now he’s reading to the kindergarten class,” said Shoshana and Chaim proudly.
Making School-Wide Change
For inclusion facilitators Siobhán Mikolajewski (SSDS) and Ali Butter (MWJDS), the success of the inclusion program rests on more than academic accomplishments. The Slifka students must feel a sense of belonging at the schools, too. “As our [Slifka] students got to know the love and respect of their teachers and classmates…they developed self-esteem,” Siobhán reflects. “They understood that asking questions and making mistakes is the normative experience of all students in their school, and they are no different from their peers.” From the very beginning, Austin’s teachers at MWJDS made sure that Austin felt like an equal to his classmates, note Tamara and Angie. Austin is proud of the friendships he has made, they say, adding that he is now disappointed that he doesn’t get to go to school on weekends.
The benefits of inclusion and community-building are not limited to the experiences of targeted “Slifka” families like Austin’s and Jake’s, but rather are felt across the whole school culture.
Students who see their teachers actively accepting the Slifka students adopt that same attitude, creating environments where social learning and development flourishes. Staff members note that the more typical learners have forged connections with their Slifka-student peers, becoming eager to work alongside those who learn and behave differently. This community-wide cultural shift remains one of the foundational goals of the Slifka Inclusion Initiative.
The families of the Slifka Initiative have also felt this sense of belonging, as staff work through the Initiative to build communication with parents. “That dialogue is how we show our dedication to creating an inclusive environment,” says Ali Butter, the inclusion facilitator at MWJDS. Ali has seen the benefits of this dialogue firsthand, noticing that as parents feel more heard, they let go of some of the anxiety that comes with having to fight to get support for their child(ren). “What we are looking for is a true sense of partnership with families,” Ali continues.
Imagining the Future
Because of this partnership, the goals that Jake’s grandparents have for his next few years at Solomon Schechter Day School are like those of any typical student: that he should continue to grow in mathematics, English, and Hebrew, and especially in his interest in Judaism. “We see him learning to become a good citizen,” Shoshana and Chaim remark. Austin, now a third-grader at MWJDS, has a bright future ahead at Jewish day school, too. Asked how he felt about returning to the school for third grade, Austin replied that he intended to remain at MWJDS through high school and ultimately land a teaching job there. “The Slifka opportunity has been, absolutely, a lifesaver for us,” say Tamara and Angie. “It is making a future leader of a kid who could have been left behind.”
There is still much work to be done in order for the Slifka Inclusion Initiative to achieve its long-term goal of day school inclusion in the fullest sense. However, as the educators, administrators, specialists, and families involved in the pilot program endeavor to build on these early successes, they look forward to the day when inclusion of students with a wide range of abilities and learning needs becomes the shared expectation of Jewish day schools everywhere.