I’ve blogged in the past on Kveller about my son’s experience in our local community day school. He is 8 years old, high functioning on the autism spectrum, and is committed to being in day school. It has not been easy, and on a bad day, I beat myself up about whether he would be better off back in a local public school like the one he attended for kindergarten. Luckily, my son’s good days far outnumber the bad days. Even better? My son and I are not alone in wanting him to remain in day school—everyone from the teachers to the Head of School partners with us to help my son be successful.
And that is why it is so infuriating to read posts like “Jewish Day School Failed Me. Here’s Why.” Children with different learning styles, needs, and delays may present unique challenges to our educators, but those challenges by no means diminish each child’s value to the Jewish community. With the decreasing number of non-Orthodox Jews and dwindling day school enrollment across the country, I am struck by how short-sighted is it for any day school to treat a student in the way that Jacqui Zadik describes. And I am appalled by members of the Jewish community who unequivocally support this on social media with outdated and unpopular efforts to exclude children from our day schools. Comments containing generalizations about children with social and emotional challenges disrupting classes, and comments placing undue import on the educational needs of neurotypical learners, have no place in the Jewish community.
Do not misunderstand–certainly, a day school education is not the right fit for every learner. And I am fully aware of the financial realities facing many of our smaller day schools which lack endowments and must carefully consider how best to serve our students’ needs despite shrinking enrollment (and, in turn, tuition for operating expenses). This reality is personal for me. My sons’ day school is rich in Jewish values, education, and community, but still struggles with financial resources.
Still, we have a communal need to educate and imbibe Jewish learning and values in our children–and this need goes far beyond a traditional day school model. To be successful, our community needs to embrace the realization that Jewish day school must be synonymous with providing universal support for different learners. If we fail to do so, we will lose those learners (and there are many)–and with them, their families and siblings. In losing these families, we lose more than numbers–we lose diversity, we lose compassion, and we lose our values.
Our children are growing up in an environment of increased educational, social and extracurricular demands, and their parents are tuned into their individualized learning needs and the supports both in-and-out of the classroom, which allow them to thrive. The public school system is far from perfect, but it offers a variety of resources to meet different learning needs–from the more “traditional” support for children who have academic difficulties to the newer types of support offered for children who can keep up academically, but present behavioral challenges. And while private schools are not mandated by law to meet the needs of all learners, that does not mean they do not actually do so. In fact, private schools are increasingly offering attractive, broad support for the many different types of learners growing up in this generation.
Jewish day schools need more than learning specialists and speech therapists on staff. They need resources to train all of their general education and Judaic studies teachers in ways to support different learners in the classroom. They need a special educator on staff who can support the classroom teachers. They need resources for our gifted students who need extra challenges. They need to organize and operate in a way that fosters communication between everyone at home and in school who is involved with each of our children. They need to reach out to specialists–the gym, art, and music teachers who see all of the students–to make sure they are each aware of how they may need to modify their lessons to meet each individual child’s needs.
If we are serious about fostering a thriving Jewish community for future generations, it begins with all of our children–and the market for all of our children’s education is competitive. If Jewish day schools want to keep up, if they want to stay open, they cannot dismiss the support necessary for learning differences as an expense they cannot afford–it is an investment.. Each of our children are unique individuals who, together, form the future of community. But if our day schools refuse to evolve and support (in words and action) our students, their parents will put them in a public school or different private school which is equipped to support their children.
Comment after comment on Jacqui’s post detailed similar situations from day schools across the country. It is unfortunate that so many day schools fail to appreciate just how crucial it is to differentiate education and foster inclusion. This is no easy feat, but it is also one we cannot afford to miss.