By H. Glen Rosenkrantz
At Striar Hebrew Academy of Sharon (SHAS), the head of school is starting these early days of the new term as he always does, standing out front and greeting students as they arrive by foot, car or bike.
And every day, without fail, one car pulls up, and one bespectacled third-grader emerges with a resounding and heartfelt Boker Tov delivered with ear-to-ear smiles.
“Every morning, he teaches me how to relate to others, with a sweetness and openness and ever-present good humor,” said Dr. Richard Wagner, head of school. “He sets the tone. It’s contagious.”
It’s a mighty load for an eight-year-old boy, but Binny Ellenbogen unwittingly delivers big time.
And here, no one thinks twice about the fact that Binny is a child with Down syndrome. For sure, he is in the minority as a child with special needs, but he is in the majority as a child attending SHAS for a solid and immersive Jewish day school education and experience.
Of the 110 students at SHAS, Binny is one of about a dozen receiving support services from Gateways to address special learning needs. These are provided through individualized instruction and therapies both in and out of the classroom, but all within a supported inclusion program.
A learning specialist modifies and customizes his curricula but preserves and maintains its goals and objectives. An instructional aide helps him to understand classroom lessons on his own terms, and he receives occupational, speech and language therapies during the course of the week, all while being fully included with classmates and in tune with the rhythms of the school day.
“He is a full participant in the school community along with his peers,” said Sue Schweber, Founder of the Day School Program at Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, which partners with SHAS and 12 other Jewish day schools in the greater Boston area to ensure a Jewish education for students with special learning needs.
“Every child learns and takes in information differently and Binny is no different in that respect. As with all students in Gateways, Binny’s services and program are based on his individual learning style and needs.”
On a recent weekday morning, Schweber sat with the team of teachers, aides and therapists who interact with Binny throughout the school week. The regular meeting is an opportunity to plan, integrate approaches, share observations and compare notes.
“None of us are working in a vacuum,” said Dina Saks, Binny’s classroom teacher. “We all build on each other and learn from each other. Our objective is to make sure we are unified and that it all works for Binny.”
And it does. Professionals who are part of Binny’s team underscored his progress. He has a wide circle of friends inside and outside of school, and enters the rough and tumble as gladly as the rest of them.
“I’ve seen a dramatic difference in him over time,” said Marcie Lipsey, an occupational therapist who works with him for 90 minutes per week to develop hand dexterity and strength and visual and perception skills, among others. All of these are skills he takes back to the classroom, as well as to social settings and home.
“This is clearly the right environment for him and the right integrated support network for him. I don’t believe that this would happen if he was outside of the Gateways model.”
His Jewish character and knowledge are developing and deepening as well, said educators and his parents, as Jewish exposures from school, home, synagogue and elsewhere converge.
“Our shul community and our home are reflections of each other,” said Debbie Ellenbogen, Binny’s mother and herself a Jewish day school educator. “Being in a school environment that is Jewish-focused is completely reinforcing for him. That’s the kind of environment I want all my kids to be in, and he shouldn’t be an exception because he has a disability.
“It is important to me that he makes progress at his own pace in areas that are important for him. There will always be a gap. But the school he is in appreciates and nurtures his individuality, talents and interests.”
He loves stories attached to Jewish holidays, takes family trips to Israel, can use basic Hebrew words, reflects on the memory of relatives by a Yahrtzeit candle, and leaps to open the Torah ark at services.
“Gateways allows Binny to be educated in a Jewish school and with a Jewish education, and this has defined who he is,” Lipsey said.
The Gateways model is all about access to Jewish education, and ensuring that parents have options for day school, pre-school and supplementary environments for a child with special needs. Educators and parents alike say there is a moral imperative that this be the case.
“It’s all well and good to say to our kids that we have to treat each other nicely and with dignity and respect,” said Dr. Wagner, the head of school. “But that is just talk and blather until we put these values and virtues into action.
“SHAS and Gateways are partners in making this happen. We want the same things. Gateways brings to the table specializations that are simply essential to students with special needs who are entitled to a Jewish education.
“If it wasn’t for them, then the success and inspiration and joy that is Binny just wouldn’t be happening.”