For Activist Who Founded Matan, A School's Many Failings Hit Close To Home
05/24/2013 - 11:59
Meredith Englander Polsky
Meredith Englander Polsky
Meredith Englander Polsky

In 19 days, my daughter will complete her last year of Jewish day school. I had many visions in my mind for this moment: Seeing her in a cap and gown with friends she’s known since kindergarten; finding the picture of her eating ice cream with a little boy in first grade and placing it next to their prom picture; feeling pride that although we made sacrifices, my husband and I provided a solid Jewish education to our child. 

And some of those visions may have become reality, if not for the fact that Lucy will turn seven just before her last day at Jewish day school. She is completing first grade, not 12th.

So she will leave unceremoniously and when she looks back she’ll know she spent two years in day school and moved on. And to be honest, I’m ambivalent: I’m disappointed, but I can’t wait for Lucy to be done there.

This might be surprising to those of you who know from my previous post that I started Matan, an organization which strives to provide a Jewish education for every child. I have been in the field of Jewish Special Education for 15 years.

Over those years, I have received feedback that I should say more about my personal connection to this issue. The truth is, though, I started Matan long before I had children of my own and I’ve always taken pride in that. I wasn’t passionate about Jewish inclusion because of my own personal experiences; I was passionate about it because it was the right thing to be passionate about. It still shocks me that there is not more outrage that up to 200,000 Jewish children with special needs are simply excluded from Jewish education.

But, as it turns out, May is Mental Health Awareness Month and I find myself with something to say. By the time Lucy was three, she was diagnosed with Selective Mutism, a relatively rare manifestation of a social anxiety disorder in which a child is physically unable to speak outside of his/her home. The specifics of that require a whole separate blog post, but Lucy’s hard work and tenacity meant that she was fully speaking when she entered Jewish day school in kindergarten. Anxiety has remained a constant in her life, though, and I knew (or thought I knew) that the more information the school had about her mental health issues, the better they would be able to educate her and the more successful she would be.

At Matan, schools often point the finger at parents who, they say, don’t tell teachers what kids need. So I knew I wanted to be extremely open about Lucy’s struggles. Also, because of my line of work, I felt a responsibility to help the school understand anxiety and how it can impact performance in a classroom. After all, anxiety disorders are the most common form of psychopathology in children. Yet this school rebuffed my attempts to help.

If you had asked me two years ago if Lucy had special learning needs, I would have said no – and I’m confident that my training in this area offset the biases that come with being her mother. I would still say no. With a few simple strategies and a commitment to understanding the “whole child,” Lucy is not a difficult student to educate. But instead of seeing this whole child, the school saw a “complicated child;" maybe even “too complicated,” as the principal told us mid-way through first grade.

There are, of course, pockets of greatness at this school. But in our case, this was not enough to compensate for its many failures: to listen, to communicate, to follow through. In a word, poor customer service. (Did you read Erica Brown’s Jewish Week article on this topic?). So it was pretty easy for my husband and me to decide that Lucy’s day school career would end with first grade.

She will go into second grade at an excellent public school in our neighborhood without an I.E.P. or a 504 plan, the official documents that lay out the educational goals and rights of a student with disabilities. Ironically, her anxiety is far less of a foreign concept in this public school than it was at her Jewish day school. The faculty and staff at her new school are more willing to listen. They recognize that parents know their children best. And they are trained to teach different children in different ways.

Now I understand the advocacy Matan does is more complicated than I thought. This Jewish school – and it’s not the only one – is behind the times not only in accommodating children with special needs, but in educational practice generally.

Why are Jewish schools behind public schools in these very important ways? I am realizing that for children like Lucy, and those with special learning needs, to be included in Jewish education, they must enter an environment in which educators have the training they need to see the strengths in every child, and understand that children are not defined by their special need – or any one thing, for that matter.

Isn’t that what we want for all of our children?

Meredith Englander Polsky co-founded Matan in the year 2000 and currently serves as the Director of Training and Advocacy. She holds graduate degrees in Special Education and Clinical Social work and, in 2001, was one of eight national recipients of the first fellowships awarded by Joshua Venture: A Fellowship for Jewish Social Entrepreneurs. She currently resides in Gaithersburg, Maryland with her husband and three children.

 

Comments

I have a six year old daughter with various issues. Thanks to my wonderful and persistent wife, a child study team from the county evaluated her and she will receive tax funded services (occupational therapy and physical therapy) in the day school setting.

As a parent with children in the Jewish day school Meredith is referring to, CESJDS, we have had a very positive experience, even though our kids are also not round pegs going into round holes either. Each parent knows their own child best and I have no doubt about that the frustrations many have expressed here are real.

But there is another aspect to this story that perhaps bears mentioning. Jewish parents today demand that Jewish day schools perform -- in the secular subjects -- at an academic level comparable to the best local private and public schools. Our academic expectations of kids, across the board, have risen dramatically since I grew up in the 70s and 80s. There is huge academic pressure on kids and Jewish day schools to excel. At the same time, Jewish day schools are also expected to cover Judaics and Hebrew, in no less stellar a manner.

Unfortunately, today, if a Jewish day school does not perform at the academic level of a Sidwell or Georgetown Prep -- moving through massive amounts of material at high speed - many Jewish parents are quite willing to walk out the door and do so all the time. They bring an "a la carte" attitude to their commitment to Jewish institutions. This is a very real, countervailing pressure that JDS feels and must address with limited resources.

In short, there is a tension between our demands that our Jewish day schools be able to compete with Sidwell Friends and Choate, while deeply covering Jewish subjects, as well as comprehensively addressing special needs. There is no way around it.

It is simply not true that non-Jewish schools do all these things excellently. That happy world does not exist. We have many friends at the McLean School and other schools that are more skilled at dealing with special needs, including MCPS. But most of these parents say the same thing: the academics are mediocre and not as good as at CESJDS. And, of course, there are no Judaics. The kids are happy and the school addresses their developmental needs well. But the academics are not top-flight or challenging because that is not their top priority. But parents are willing to give these special-needs-friendly schools a pass on the academics, because they are happy with the services.

Perhaps Jewish parents would be well-advised to give JDS and other day schools a similar benefit of the doubt. In our experience, JDS teachers and administrators do try very hard and in most cases get it right. As a community, we need to frankly admit that Jewish day schools can't do it all perfectly. If the priority most parents demand of JDS is going to be pressure-cooker secular academics, with Jewish education as a somewhat secondary consideration, it is going to be hard to reconcile this demand with special needs in many cases.

When I was a kid, and went to Jewish day school, my parents made a major financial sacrifice, and accepted that they were not going to get 100 percent of what they wanted from one school. I got a decent Jewish education if not the best secular education (I did supplemental work with my parents and a tutor out of school) but on balance am grateful for the experience. It was compromise, and a lot of my education -- Jewish and otherwise -- but the goal was to imbibe the mesorah and to participate in the construction of the next generation of the Jewish community.

I for one am grateful that a professional, committed, and engaged school like CESJDS exists in my community. Most Jewish communities around the country would do anything to have such an institution. While there are no doubt real shortcomings at JDS when it comes to special education, it is time for parents in our community to look in the mirror and ask whether they are being fair in leveling the kind of withering criticism that is being directed at the school here.

Dear In For A Penny, Helen Chernikoff here, New Normal editor. I think your response to Meredith's post makes a very valuable point and I would like to ask you to contribute it, just slightly recast, for the blog! As I read it, you are saying that we are facing a conflict of values and I think it's true and needs to be said. If this interests you, please contact me at helenatjewishweek@gmail.com, and thank you again.

Thank you - I appreciate your response. I agree that this school (and probably Jewish Day Schools in general) face a real challenge as pressure grows to be as academically challenging as a Sidwell Friends or a Georgetown Prep. I would argue, though, that a day school's mission, then, needs to be clear. If that's the goal - to attract and retain families who would otherwise choose a Georgetown Prep - then make that explicit. Then parents know what they are choosing, and the school rejects students who will not rise to those academic challenges - probably (statistically speaking) 20% of currently enrolled students. (Clearly, this is not something I'm advocating.) Or, the school can have a very clear mission statement and educational philosophy that reflects its core values and goals, and parents can choose the school with the knowledge of what they are getting. Parents of enrolled children should not dictate the mission of the school (unless the mission is being re-written). Rather, the school must have a thorough understanding of their mission so that when parents demand something different, there is something solid to refer to. A school can choose to be truly inclusive of children who learn differently, or they can bend to the pressure exerted by parents who would choose Georgetown Prep. Why is the latter prioritized over the former?
Having said all that, I will add that none of this has anything to do with why we took our daughter out of the school. While educational mistakes were made, we could have easily forgiven those and we could have all learned a lot from the experience. But the school took an approach that left no room for "learning from mistakes". I have tried hard - in everything I've shared publicly about this - to paint the "bigger picture" and not place blame or vilify one Jewish institution. My daughter is not leaving because of special learning needs, or because she needs the specialized support that a McLean School (for example) can provide. She is leaving because the way things were handled made it impossible for us to trust in the system, or to feel any level of confidence that things might be approached differently in the future.
In any case, I think you've raised really important points in your comments, and I thank you for taking the time to respond.

Ms. Polsky
Something that has been bothering me about all of your comments and also the editorial writers at Jewish week is the inconsistency of logic and associated unfairness. On the one hand, you assert correctly that every child is an individual and has his or her own unique circumstances and on the other hand you appear to be draw broad generalizations from your particular experience. This was your experience with your child and it is clear that others at the same school have had other unique experiences with their own children and characterize the school as one in which teachers and leaders care and in which their child's particular needs are being met. I am not from the area and don't know the people involved but I do know that your experience should not be trivialized and nor should it be generalized. Given the challenges and stresses of leading a Jewish Institutions (I am a communal Rabbi of a synagogue that has been recognized for being at the forefront of inclusion but we still have much to learn), I would suggest that you and the community would be better served if you did not try and use your specific issue to illustrate the very important work that needs to be done. This is a case when it may be better to separate the crucial advocacy work that you do from the private issues that you are facing with your daughter and her school. Thank you for all that you are doing for children and for improving our schools and other places of learning.

Dear Anonymous,
I'm sorry that I am just seeing this now. I appreciate your opinion, and I respectfully disagree. If I thought my experience was an isolated one at this school, or in Jewish Day Schools in general, I certainly would not have exposed my family in this public way. Because of my work, I know that my experience is far too common in the Jewish educational world. I chose to write the blog specifically because of my work - I knew that if I had such a hard time navigating these waters after having been in this field for 15 years, it would be that much more difficult for all of the families not experiencing the level of success that some of the posters wrote about. (I received many, many private responses from current and former day school parents around the country - they felt that I wrote the post that they never had the "courage" to, and that it takes sharing this kind of experience to make any kind of real change.) Although you note that we would all be better served if I did not use my specific issue to illustrate the important work that needs to be done, I think it is only through these kinds of stories that the Jewish community will begin to understand what the Jewish world can be like for children who learn differently (and their families).

I am also the parent of children in a Jewish day school, albeit not in the DC area. I commend you on this fine and insightful response.

i had such a similar experience, but it was in a Jewish preschool. I was told that my son was "a burden" and that they weren't able to teach him. Once we left that school and went somewhere else, he blossomed and will enter a typical mainstream kindergarten program next year with no academic support.

I sadly agree wholeheartedly with your view of JDS. We had a HORRIBLE experience with our highly gifted (another serious and important special need that needs to be addressed in our schools) with some attention difficulties. The principal and director of special services handled our "case" so unbelievably unprofessionally. They were hurtful and downright cruel when they decided our son did not fit in their narrow little box. He was actually told to leave the school mid-year! We are happily homeschooling right now and my son is thriving. They have a lot to learn. I don't wish what we experienced on anyone.

Every time I hear of another instance where a child is unable to stay in a Jewish day school, I feel such a great sense of sadness. Meredith, I feel even more disheartened because you have made inclusion in Jewish education your mission and have contributed so much to the field through your work with Matan. The principles you listed really resonated with my colleagues and me. In my years working with Jewish day schools, it has been my experience that students with diverse needs are most likely to succeed when there is extensive, ongoing professional development for teachers, skilled support staff, and – most importantly – strong partnership and communication between parents, teachers and providers. These are all certainly things that we strive for when working with days schools. While we’ve advanced significantly and most day schools are accommodating a wider range of learners, we still have a long way to go. As long as the Matans, Gateways and other organizations, professionals and parents around the country continue to keep the dialogue alive, we can work together to further change the landscape of Jewish education.
Arlene Remz, Executive Director, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education arlener@jgateways.org www.jgateways.org  

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