How To Not Lose Your Lucy
05/31/2013 - 11:56
Meredith Englander Polsky
Meredith Englander Polsky
Meredith Englander Polsky

Since I shared on this blog my family’s decision to withdraw our daughter Lucy from the local Jewish day school, I have been inundated with comments, Facebook posts, emails and phone calls. The majority of these have been parents sharing their own stories about why their child could not receive a Jewish education and reliving that heartbreak, whether it was last year or 20 years ago.

There were one or two comments about a Jewish day school getting it right – either because their child benefited from a special needs program within the school, or because the school utilized their resources effectively in order to teach different kinds of learners. Each and every comment gave me something new to think about, and I truly appreciate that.

Two emails stood out above all the others, though, and those were from professionals at two different Jewish day schools (one on the East coast, one in the Midwest). They both wrote, “How can I prevent this from happening at my school?”

Their communities are lucky to have them. Asking that question is the first step. In my effort to answer them, I hope I can shed some light on their question for Jewish day schools nationwide. What I hope you’ll understand when you’ve come to the end is that special education is just really good education.

SEVEN GUIDING PRINCIPLES (That Don’t Cost Anything) FOR JEWISH DAY SCHOOLS:

1. Communicate. Start conversations with parents by acknowledging that you are not going to get everything right every time, but that you are committed to working with the family, listening to their thoughts and having productive and ongoing discussions to figure out together what is best for the child. Parents are not demanding perfection, but they are respectful dialogue in their Jewish educational space.

2. Examine your school’s culture. Don’t get fooled into thinking that one person can make an entire school inclusive. Hiring a learning specialist or a director of educational support or a social worker is fantastic. These are experts I hope every Jewish day school will one day have in their midst. But a family’s experience cannot rest in the hands of these people alone. The notion that every student is valuable, regardless of strengths and weaknesses, must get “buy in” from administrators, teachers and other specialists.

3. Communicate. Until proven otherwise, assume that a parent knows their child best. Do not make assumptions based on what happens in the classroom. Relay to the parents what you are seeing, without diagnosing, and remind them that the goal is to help their child reach their individual potential. Plan out when and how you will communicate next, and write down what steps you have each agreed to in the interim. Be accountable.

4. Focus professional development on differentiated instruction and multiple intelligences. It can no longer be disputed that different people learn in different ways – it is a rare individual who learns equally well in every different modality. Your classrooms will not only become better suited for students with special learning needs, they will become more dynamic, better learning environments for every student.

5. Communicate. Share with your parent body what your faculty will be learning in professional development. Whether your day focuses on positive behavior supports, differentiated instruction, mental health in children, creating a culture of respect, examining the math curriculum with an eye towards multi-modal instruction – whatever the topic might be, share it! Teachers are learners, too, and parents will be thrilled to know that there are “works in progress.” That knowledge can create more open lines of communication between educators and parents, and better accentuate the values of your school.

6. Be creative with your resources. Remember that question on your application forms where parents need to write their profession? Print out that column and make a list of every special education teacher, occupational therapist, speech pathologist, social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist and any other person in a related field. Convene them as a group, or meet with them individually. Let them talk to you about what your school is doing right when it comes to their particular knowledge base, and how the school can improve. Let them help you navigate the process of receiving public supports in private school education. In many cases, these individuals will provide you with some pro-bono support. Have them sit in a classroom and consult with the teacher afterwards. A few small suggestions from a person with a different lens go a long way.

7. Communicate. Understand that parents of children with any type of special learning need, mental health issue or developmental delay are most likely in some degree of turmoil. It is not easy to parent a child with challenges, or one who deviates from what most describe as the “norm.”  Understand the role you play as an educator in being that parent’s ally, in giving them room to feel frustrated, upset or overwhelmed. Understand that they will only hear you if they feel heard first. Don’t give up on a parent because they are challenging you, or because you disagree with them. Stick with them through this journey. You, the parent and the child will all reap the benefits.

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

As noted, there are some day school and synagogue religious school programs, as well as Matan (which is often located at JCCs or synagogues), that serve the needs of autistic children, particularly those of typical intelligence. But try being in our shoes. If your child is sociable and NOT autistic, but is developmentally disabled, good luck. Try as some synagogues might, they just can't pull together the right resources, often because there aren't enough children in their area who fit this general intellectual description, even in a major metropolitan area suburb with a significant Jewish population. Forget about this happening at a day school, because the staff resources don't exist in day schools. I should know, because that is where I have worked for the last third of my career, as a secular studies educator. Public school is undoubtedly the right place for my child, because the class size and staffing he needs are only available there. As an educator with a strong Jewish background (having attended excellent Jewish day schools from Kindergarten through high school graduation), I'm glad that at least some segments of the special needs population can be served within a few day schools and synagogue after-school programs. However, it is sad that there is no real place in Jewish education for those who are of lesser intelligence, as if they matter less because they're not smart. My son's openness to, and non-judgmental embrace of the world is the very embodiment of v'ahafta l'rayecha commocha (love your neighbor as yourself). Is he less deserving of a Jewish education? We can say there are insufficient resources and insufficient numbers of trained Jewish educators, or we can look the problem squarely in the eye and recognize that the resources don't exist because Jewish institutions of higher learning, who would educate these professionals, do not prioritize this need. Why not? Perhaps it is because those of lesser intelligence are not prized for the gifts they do contribute to society. Your child is autistic and intelligent? Yes, there has been progress. Your child has mild CP and is completely mobile, highly functional, and friendly, but not so intelligent, no. We are lucky to belong to a synagogue that made an incredible effort to bring our son to bar mitzvah, but it has been hard for them to craft much else for him, with very small programs in some years, but not in other years. Matan in our area was a marginal success for a while. The teachers were lovely, but the program was very small, and the kids were either screaming or nonverbal, and the director would often publicly deride both the teachers and the poor, unfortunate day school teenagers who volunteered their time each week. No wonder there was such high turnover. With all the accolades some programs receive, a closer look reveals that sometimes, the emperor has no clothes. There is a long road ahead.

I am also a parent of a current and a former Carmel Academy student. When my son was "thrown out" from another local Jewish Day School because of his
learning differences, Carmel accepted him with open arms. He thrived both socially and educationally and now looks back on his kindergarten trauma as one of the best things that ever hapened to him.

My children were in a Jewish day school. My daughter was bullied to such an extreme on her 12th grade trip tp Israel I pulled everyone out. And the Jewish day school that is loving and "teaches to do the right thing" watched it all unfold. It took years to undo the damage that was done.
Be careful drinking the kool-aid. The kids and teaches were FAR worse there than in public school. Not the Judiasm I raised my kids to follow

I taught in the Jewish day school system for 11 years. I stopped teaching 3 years ago. I want to point out that I feel a big part of the problem is that many of the teachers are overworked. In my school a full time teacher taught one grade in the morning and one grade in the afternoon. That means two different curriculums and fifty students. That's compared to public school teachers who have much more prep time, half the amount of students and one curriculum. And these teachers earn less money then in the public schools! When I taught I always had children who needed special care. I loved my job but to be honest, getting half day salary for working almost full time was not financially worth it. Between prepping for class, meeting with parents, speaking to parents and meeting with support staff, it was just too much. Yes, I had a wonderful relationship with the parents and with the administration but is it really fair to expect a teacher to put that much overtime in her work? I also have a family and other responsibilities. I think that parents need to understand that the full time day school teachers work very hard and very long hours. Also I have to say that there is a reputation that day school parents are very demanding because they are paying a lot of money- and there is also a reputation of administration not always supporting their teachers because they don't want to upset parents... All that needs to be examined as well.

Thank you. For all of us parents who are banging our heads against the wall every day, every year. Have currently in both day school & public school & I agonize all the time- should I keep this one in day school, even though every year they say it will get better & it doesn't? Should I keep this one in public school where the kid is learning great, but we don't have enough time in the day to keep the kid up to speed in Judaics? & year after year, I see the day school classes shrink as the kids move up each grade, those kids move to other settings that can accommodate them. & I am always wondering, why can't they figure it out?

With so many stories like yours (and ours) it really is a wonder that this has not yet moved to the top of the priority list. You're right - there is so much focus on diminishing enrollment in day schools, yet there are so many of us who would happily increase those numbers with a few small fixes. (Yes, there are children with more significant special needs who also deserve a Jewish education - and much more attention needs to go there - but there is "low lying fruit" where kids could have been easily served by Jewish day schools with very little extra effort.)

Love all of these - but, as a Board Certified Music Therapist (MT-BC) and a private practice owner, I especially love #6! Parents can sometimes be your best resources!! I think these principles can (and should be) applied to ANY/ALL schools nationwide. Thanks for sharing.

Thank you for your orignial blog post describing your painful decion to remove your daughter from her Jewish day school and this very helpful guide to all such schools (and all schools, really). As a board member at Carmel Academy in Greenwich, CT, I am very proud of what our school has accomplished in this regard. Differentiated education for all students is provided at every level. See this article from an April issue of The Jewish Week: http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/new-york-news/best-both-worlds

Your seven principals are on point and can guide all educators, even those getting it right need these kinds of reminders. Hoping your daughter thrives in her new environment.

Meredith, though I've never met you, I feel like you're my long lost best friend!! I am keeping my name anonymous here because of the fact that the principal at my children's school has asked me to stop being "vocally dissatisfied" (I know, right?!). I have fought tooth and nail for my son every step of the way. From him being rejected for Pre-K to him finally getting into kindergarten in the school (with lot of tutoring and involvement by me), he's still a student in the school and has been accepted back for next year. He has a teacher who has no respect for my son nor myself. She has been a total nightmare. The more I speak up and advocate for my child, the worse it seems to get. Instead, I often feel like our intensive tutoring routine and my involvement are what really keeps him going. Reading this article validates my feelings that my willingness to be actively involved should be a good thing! I thank you so much. I have spent two years feeling sad, rejected, alone. Though it isn't comforting to see this is going on more often than we realize, at least it's nice to know that others can relate. I wish we could speak more. I still sit very conflicted on this matter.
Thanks again!

Hi, anonymous :) Please feel free to email me at Meredith@matankids.org and we can find a time to chat! If you've read through comments on this article and my previous one that lead to this one, you will see you are (unfortunately) far from alone. Keep advocating - keep being involved - it is the only way your son will get what he needs... but of course you know that. Email me :)

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