Jewish Week Editorial: Day Schools For All Children
05/30/2013 - 11:53

About 15 years ago, Meredith Polsky co-founded Matan, a nonprofit that advocates for the right of Jewish students with disabilities to receive a Jewish education.

From day one, well-meaning advisers encouraged her to boost support for Matan by divulging her personal reasons for creating it. Perhaps she herself was dyslexic? Surely she had a family member in a wheelchair?

In fact, as Polsky reveals in a post she wrote for the Jewish Week’s disability blog, The New Normal, she had no such reason to found Matan. Assuming the Jewish community has the same disability rate as the general population, about 200,000 Jewish children have a disability — but she found our schools insufficiently able and willing to welcome them. That was enough for her.

Now, however, Polsky does have a personal connection. Her daughter Lucy was diagnosed at age 3 with Selective Mutism, a severe form of anxiety in which a child doesn’t talk outside his or her home. Because of Lucy’s hard work, she entered kindergarten two years ago, speaking. Polsky vowed to help the school help her daughter, and thereby other students with anxiety, succeed. It didn’t work. Deemed “too complicated,” Lucy didn’t fit the day school’s mold. Polsky and her husband pulled her out, and will start her at a public school in the fall.

If this can happen to Polsky — with her years of training and expertise, and a child with no diagnosed cognitive or developmental delays — it can happen to any parent. That it happened to her and after a decade and a half of work on the issue was both demoralizing and enlightening. Most Jewish day schools, she realized, lack supports such as specialists that are standard in public schools, and their classroom teachers do not have public school teachers’ training in how to adapt their styles and methods to different students’ needs.

The day school community has not mustered the will to address the systematic rejection of students with disabilities. The Foundation for Jewish Camp has mapped disabilities programs and services in the world of Jewish overnight camp. Day schools have not. This year’s North American Jewish Day School Conference offered not a single session on disabilities.

Matan tries to focus Jewish educators’ attention on this problem by offering professional development, training and mentorship. Awareness of this issue is rising, no doubt because most Jewish educators entered the field out of a desire to serve every Jewish child, not just the easy ones. A pluralistic day school for children with disabilities is slated to open next year, and other area schools have taken it upon themselves to step up services. But the field as a whole needs to internalize the notion that not every child learns the same and put sufficient resources behind this principle. That Jewish schools reject inconvenient Jewish children is perverse. What’s a Jewish school for, if not to cherish and teach all of them?

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My child will be leaving a Boston day school after 7th grade on a negative note. He does learn differently however is just as capable as other children in the school. They labeled him and he has been treated unfairly. I sent my child to a Jewish school to learn Hebrew and they took him out of that class. For the last few years he has been put at a great disadvantage in Toshba and Tanakh because he has not been allowed to take Hebrew. This has eroded his self esteem. He tells me he no longer wants to be part of the Jewish community. My heart is broken. Shame on that school for giving up on my son and turning him off from living a meaningful Jewish life.

It always intrigues me when people such as the author of the editorial and Meredith are seeking are rightly pushing the community to have non-judgmental attitudes to individual students and yet are so quick to pass judgement on the performance and motives of those who work professionally each day in a School. Clearly, the school made mistakes and the parent has every right to hold the school accountable for mistakes including those of non-communication. Yet, there is also room for recognition that everyone in our shools work day and night to further the success of the students and families. The ease with which some people feel comfort in attacking Day School Teachers and leaders is only going to further the cycle of frustration. The shame of not having a place for a Jewish education for some students is on me and other volunteer leaders in the community much more than the individual schools. Let's hold schools accountable for their mistakes and at the same time be careful not to tack integrity and motivation of our wonderful, long suffering, professional leadership in the public (and also in the private domain). It's the easy way out to go after the schools but not the correct one.

We live in a small suburb of Boston and we have had a wonderful experience with the Gateways Sunday Program, the self-contained program for children with moderate-to-severe special needs. In fact, our son has been so successful that he will be able to transition to the mainstream program at our local synagogue.

For full-time academic studies, however, he needs the intense structure available to him in our small, underfunded, yet incredibly supportive and well-organized public school system in our town. I've rejected moving to Boston several times because they have been so wonderful for him.

I know that for many in the Jewish special education community, there is a vision of day schools being able to network together to provide the kind of support that Amy Meltzer describes. It doesn't have to be immediate - if the next generation gets to benefit from that, I will be delighted. L'dor va-dor and all that. I look at the support that the synagogues in our community, including the one in our neighborhood, get from Gateways in order to be able to welcome more children.

I do not think that, even in our frustration, that we as parents should be blaming the day schools, especially when they work hard to include as many children as they can. Not every school is the right fit for every child. Addressing diverse learning styles is important and difficult, and sometimes there's a seat at one school for a child that didn't fit at another. Our shy-yet-loud daughter, going into kindergarten, is much more likely to succeed at the small, high teacher-student ratio day school than in the big public school, but the public school and its comprehensive special needs supports is the right fit for our son. It all depends.

Even if some Jewish day schools are getting better at addressing the educational needs of different types of learners, my experience both as a child psychologist and as a day-school parent is that the willingness of Jewish day schools to support the emotional and mental health needs of children lags behind even their willingness to support academic needs. In our day school, the classmates of my children who have been encouraged to leave over the years have generally been children who have developed emotional or behavioral difficulties (anxiety or mood disorders). Arrangements could be made for day schools in a given area to share costs for a school psychologist or behavioral specialist to implement plans for these children to stay in school, as well as for training to help classroom teachers and aides understand and work with these children, but many schools rely instead on guidance counselors or nurses who don't have the training and experience to be maximally helpful. Public schools are generally better equipped to support the needs of children with anxiety disorders (including selective mutism) because they know they have to, and because they have financial incentives for retaining such children in their local schools. To discourage children with these common mental health problems, that may affect as many as 10% of elementary schoolers, from staying in day schools is bad for the community because it loses these valuable children as members, and is bad pedagogically for their classmates who remain, who learn through experience that people who are struggling with emotional difficulties get dropped by the community.

You point out something very important - that there ARE Jewish day schools that are getting things right. There are pockets of places throughout the country that are known for the incredible efforts they put into accommodating diverse learners. I don't know where you teach, but the Boston area, for example, stands out in this regard. There are certain schools in other parts of the country, as well, who have made this an important part of their mission and approach different learners (and their families) with respect and optimism. I am always heartened to hear about those schools, because it shows that this CAN be done successfully. Sadly, though, this is not the case at the vast majority of Jewish day schools in this country. While this editorial was based on a piece I wrote specifically about my experiences with my daughter at one Jewish day school, I wrote it because I felt it was important to shine a light on this critical issue facing the Jewish community. At Matan we receive hundreds of calls from parents who do not have the advantage of living near a Jewish day school like the one you describe. In the past week since my article was published, I've received 50+ emails from parents all over the country who wanted to share what they went through, and how heartbreaking their own journey was. And these stories are not just about private schools being less able to accommodate differences than public schools. They are about overall cultures of schools and how their families are treated.
Conversations like these do have the unfortunate consequence of lumping everyone together, and not taking into account those that are doing things well (in the same way that not everyone at my daughter's school was responsible for how things went for us) - so I understand your anger. For the larger Jewish community, though, it's important to recognize that far too many families are not having the experience you describe. I hope that other Jewish day schools somehow have the opportunity to learn how schools like yours approach diverse learners and their families - because, on the whole, we have a long way to go.

To sum up the incredible challenges facing those of us working in jewish day schools who are committed to jewish day school education for all as a "failure to muster will" is simply wrong. To assert that we do not accept students who are "inconvenient" is offensive. It flies in the face of the agonizing efforts I've seen my school and many other schools make to try to meet the needs of all learners. Basing a large portion of this editorial on a one-sided, first-person representation of what took place in one child's situation seems irresponsible - who specifically asserted that the problem was that Lucy didn't "fit the day schools' mold?" Are you quoting someone at the school? The parent? Is this your assessment after speaking to someone at the school?

It is a difficult and sad truth that day schools will never be able to match the resources of the public schools when it comes to meeting IEP and 504 and quite honestly, even with those resources many, many public schools still do a dismal job. It is a problem that absolutely needs attention, resources and money. I'm not sure how to solve the problem, but I can assure you that slamming Jewish day school educators is not the way to effect positive change.

The comparison to summer camp is, I think, spurious. Without diminishing in any way the wonderful work that camps have done, providing a year of academic schooling is not the same thing as providing a joyful camp experience.

Thank you Amy for your comment. Finally someone stood up to say how one-sided this argument is. I agree slamming day schools is not "advocacy" its cowardice.