‘The Best Of Both Worlds’

In debate over how best to teach special-needs students, Greenwich’s Carmel Academy forges a middle path.

04/24/13
Associate Editor
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Years ago, a New York-area Jewish day school refused to enroll Bobbie Powers’ son because he was dyslexic.

That wouldn’t happen today, at least not if Powers’ son, now a college grad, had applied to Greenwich’s Carmel Academy, an independent Jewish day school from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Powers runs Carmel’s Providing Alternative Learning Strategies (PALS) program, a unique track for children with dyslexia, language-processing difficulties, Asperger’s and other disabilities.

Launched seven years ago, as a pilot program with five students, PALS now enrolls 52 and is hiring a second administrator to assist Powers. At the same time, Carmel’s entire population has grown, with 185 students in its “core” program.

Just as it is geographically located between Manhattan and Boston, PALS stands between the two cities’ Jewish communities in its approach to special needs. While The Shefa School, a Manhattan Jewish day school in the planning stages, will focus exclusively on children with disabilities, the approach in Boston — advocated and funded in large part by the influential Ruderman Foundation — has been “inclusion,” encouraging day schools to integrate this population into mainstream classrooms.

With PALS, Carmel combines elements of both the Boston and New York approaches.

“This is the best of both worlds,” says Powers. “We get whole families, not just the child with special needs,” she says. “Everyone is at school together, part of the same culture…”

PALS students, who pay a tuition that is more than double the “core” tuition but is comparable to prices at special-needs schools, have on-site therapists, small classes, a “sensory gym” and a variety of other services to accommodate their unique learning needs. But they also mix with kids from the “core” program for many academic courses, as well as lunch (the cafeteria has round tables, rather than long ones, to facilitate conversations), art, gym and various other school activities.

Most significantly, in both Judaic and secular studies the PALS kids follow the same curriculum as the core kids, although Powers acknowledges that how this plays out can “depend on the child’s capabilities.”

“We cover all the high points and still expose them to all the standards,” she says. “For some it’s not viable” to cover everything the core kids cover, “but at least they get exposure.”

Making matters easier is that the entire school is run on a “differentiated” model — with students divided into small groups based on their abilities in various disciplines and with a lot of attention given to different learning styles. Carmel also places a high premium on teacher collaboration and an integrated curriculum, with teachers spending a lot of time communicating with each other, and tailoring lessons to students’ individual needs.

“PALS depends on the core program for the rigor and meaning it provides,” says Tali Aldouby Schuck, Carmel’s director of Judaic studies.

Carmel administrators take pains to emphasize that PALS is just one component of the school and that serving kids with disabilities does not detract from its overall rigor.

Indeed, concerned that parents of typically developing children sometimes misperceive Carmel as “the special-needs school” and wrongly assume it has low academic standards, administrators were initially hesitant to have PALS profiled in a Jewish Week article.

An indication of that sensitivity is that on the school’s website, the most prominently displayed section on its “Why A Carmel Education?” page is “Academic Distinction.” Among the bullet points: 70 percent of Carmel students are “in the top 5 percent academically in the country,” students in the school’s advanced math and science enrichment programs have garnered three international awards, and “Carmel graduates are sought and accepted to some of the most competitive Jewish high schools, private schools and honors public school programs in the region.”

That potential special-needs “stigma” — the fear that a program for kids with disabilities might weaken a school’s academic reputation, particularly in an uber-competitive market like Manhattan may explain why no New York City school has developed something like PALS, notes Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, who is leading the effort to establish the Shefa School.

Ruskay-Kidd, who in June will leave her position as director of the JCC in Manhattan’s early childhood program, plans to open Shefa (Hebrew for “plenty” or “abundance”) in 2014. She says that leaders of established New York day schools have greeted Shefa with enthusiasm, with many saying “they care about the issue and are working on it internally, but feel that for some kids a stand-alone school would be helpful.” Ruskay-Kidd recently visited Carmel, and while Shefa will serve families seeking a stand-alone school, “When you go [to Carmel] it makes a lot of sense, having everyone on one campus,” she says.

Asked if Shefa might pose a threat to Carmel, since its PALS program draws a number of Manhattan and Riverdale families, Ruskay-Kidd says the special-needs population in New York and its environs is currently so underserved that “there’s enough to go around.”

Set on a historic and meticulously landscaped 17-acre campus, Carmel looks like the picture-perfect New England prep school it once was — the grounds originally housed Rosemary Hall, a girls’ boarding school.

Carmel, which was founded in 1997 as the Westchester Fairfield Hebrew Academy, launched PALS in 2006, the same year it moved to the campus.

“We had always been devoted to diversity in learning styles, and when we had to counsel out children, these were very painful decisions,” says Nora Anderson, Carmel’s head of school, adding that moving to the campus meant “we had space available ... it was the right thing to do.”

Additional funding came at the same time as the additional space.

Asked what spurred PALS’ launch, Powers says, “A few parents [of children with disabilities] were absolutely determined to keep their kids in the school, but recognized they weren’t getting the services they needed. It’s fortunate that one of those sets of parents was able to fund” much of the program.

Administrators declined to say exactly how much it costs to offer PALS, but they note that the $54,000 annual tuition does not cover the full per-child cost, and that they depend on fundraising to make up the difference.

The faculty includes an occupational therapist, speech therapist, school psychologist, Orton-Gillingham reading specialist and a behavior analyst, as well as a consulting psychiatrist. All of that, plus two special-ed-certified teachers per 10-student class, makes for a pricey model.

Powers, who wears her gray hair in a short, spiky cut and carries her phone and keys in a Converse sneaker-shaped purse, keeps her office stocked with snacks for her teachers.

“I have a lot of public school background and I didn’t want to replicate what I saw there,” she says. “In public school so many decisions are based on what’s best financially rather than what’s best educationally.”

Parents interviewed seem to feel they are getting their money’s worth.

“You get what you pay for,” says Kim Lax, whose second-grade son is in PALS and kindergarten daughter is in the core program. “You get that individualized attention — they really get to know your kid.”

Lax, who lives in Stamford and belongs to a Conservative synagogue, says the administration and faculty are “very personable and approachable.”

PALS “allows the kids to thrive and really builds their confidence,” she says, adding, “I love that both my kids can go to the same school and get an amazing education on top of a Jewish education.”

Suzannah Coll also lives in Stamford and has two children at Carmel — a fifth grader in PALS and a third grader in the core program. She said that after bringing an outside consultant – someone who has known her son since he was in kindergarten – to meet with his teachers and visit the campus, she understood why his family kept him in a dual-curriculum [Judaic-secular] program, even though he has language issues.

“She could see how much the teachers love and care about the children and how they work so hard to make sure their experiences are positive. At the end of the visit, she said, ‘OK, now I get it.’”

On a sunny morning shortly before Passover, the hallways of the school.

are brightly painted and carpeted, decorated with student artwork and dotted with comfy cushion-filled nooks where small groups can gather. 

All the classrooms are furnished with ergonomic desks, mostly arranged in small clusters rather than in rows. Many of the PALS classes have special stools and footrests designed to enable kids with attention-deficit disorder to move around and practice sitting up straight.

In one kindergarten classroom, the children are painting their own Haggadahs, while in a first-grade room they are practicing singing the Four Questions in Hebrew.

Judaic and secular studies are mixed wherever possible; for Purim, one class charted the Book of Esther’s characters with Venn diagrams, a concept they were learning in math. In gym class, the kids learn to play games from countries they are studying about in social studies.

In a middle-school science lab, the room jam-packed with equipment and a menagerie of animals — including guinea pigs and snakes — eighth graders, a mix of PALS and core kids, are discussing physics concepts like acceleration.

Carmel offers a Regents’-level biology class and a science enrichment program that students must test into; several PALS students have successfully gained admission. One, who was still unable to read or writing in seventh grade, was so passionate about science and so eager to be in the enrichment program class that he finally mastered reading and writing when told it was a requirement for admission.

Rhonda Ginsberg, who teaches the enrichment classes and the Regents’ classes, says she has not had to change her curriculum “at all” to accommodate the PALS students.

“Kids who need it get skills periods with a special-ed teacher who pre-teaches some of the vocabulary as needed,” she says. “In my seventh-grade chemistry class, there’s a lot of math computations, so sometimes kids review that with the special-ed teacher. But they have the same tests and the same assignments.”

PALS kids mix with core ones in other academic subjects as well.

Hilary Machlis’s third-grade core class regularly has social studies and science with PALS third graders, and she works closely with the PALS teachers to “make sure everything we do is differentiated, not just because of PALS, but because it’s important to us that every child learns the way he or she needs to learn — whether it’s written, oral or they’re given more time.”

The mixing is good for the core kids as well as the PALS ones, Machlis says.

“In any community anywhere, there are people with certain strengths and weaknesses,” she says. “It’s important to be accepting, to realize not everyone behaves the same way or has the same skills: it’s a learned skill to be accepting of others.”

Says Anderson: “The non-PALS kids learn menschlikeit and fairness, that being in an honors class when they get to high school is not necessarily about being bright but about having different learning styles.” 

editor@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

04/24/2013 - 10:56

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