By Jeff Kress and Abigail Uhrman
There has been much discussion in the Jewish professional world on the challenges of including a wider range of learners in our Jewish educational spaces, but there has been little research on the “bright spots”: where are schools and camps experiencing success and in what ways? It is from these conversations that our profiles of inclusion project emerged. Funded by the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS and the Jim Joseph Foundation, the project had two goals: to better understand how Jewish educational settings have succeeded in including learners with disabilities and diverse learning needs and, in doing so, to help inform others who are undertaking this work.
In consultation with key informants in the field, we identified five institutions to profile that were noted for their work in this area: two day schools, two overnight camps, and a congregational school. To develop each profile, our field researchers – David Farbman, Jennifer Gendel, Meredith Katz, Miriam Eckstein-Koas, and Orlea Miller – observed inclusion in action at each setting and conducted in-depth interviews with senior administrators, educators (teachers, counselors, support staff), and parents. Once the profiles were completed, we looked across the case studies for themes: where are the bright spots? Finally, in collaboration with our editorial consultant, Tammie Rapps, we adapted our research for use in the field.
Below is a summary of some important takeaways. A quick note: We are skeptical about the prospects for the effectiveness of a “how to” manual, and that is certainly not our intention here. School and community cultures are unique and solutions are often “local.” There are, however, some recurring themes in both the challenges faced by schools and in the factors that helped maintain momentum in the face of these.
Power of (outsider) partnerships:
By and large, the sites profiled did not go it alone. The journey toward inclusion involves both external expertise (often in the form of local or national consultant organizations) and additional funding (again, often from local sources). As a site’s experience with inclusion grows, leaders must think realistically about how much of these external resources can be internalized. While internal expertise can be cultivated, there are functions that might be best filled through an ongoing external relationship.
In many cases, a parent pushes an institution to provide the services needed for their child(ren) to attend the program. Inclusion takes on a face; it is no longer an abstract idea. Concrete planning can occur, moving the discussion beyond “what if” worries about roadblocks. The programs that experienced the most success purposefully worked toward getting buy-in from a wide range of stakeholders. The centrality of individual parents in driving the process raises questions about what needs to happen in order to sustain these programs and initiatives beyond the individual child/family.
While inclusion might begin with a single learner, in these sites it is not treated in isolation. Rather, inclusion is linked holistically and authentically both to the central values articulated by a site and into the ongoing educational structure. As they embarked on their process, inclusion was organically and intentionally incorporated into their mission and vision. They saw diversity as adding value to their program, helping them further achieve their goals. In educational settings, add-ons are at risk for being cut off; integration is crucial for success. Connection to core priorities is an ongoing process; leaders needed to maintain their focus on inclusion over time and in the face of other initiatives and demands on resources.
The site leader plays a crucial role in ensuring that inclusion remains a priority. These leaders often have a personal passion for, or connection to, disability and are able to provide a narrative that integrates work in this area with the core priorities of the institution. The trust that they inspire in their constituents helps maintain momentum, even when inevitable bumps in the road are encountered.
Range of Models to Meet Varied Needs:
“Inclusion” manifests at these sites in multiple ways; the realities of meeting the needs of a range of youth preclude a one-size-fits-all approach or doctrinaire adherence to a particular theory of inclusion. In fact, multiple modes are often implemented even within the same site. The needs of the individuals with disabilities dictate the evolution of the program.
Patience and Organizational Learning:
Our research revealed many lessons for the field, but most importantly, it reinforced for us that inclusion is a process, and those looking for a quick fix will inevitably be disappointed. The sites profiled have taken a long view, learning as they go and being willing to experiment. It is recognized that “getting it right” is an oversimplification; the answer to the question of the “right” approach for a setting evolves over time.
Dr. Abigail Uhrman is assistant professor of Jewish education in the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS.
Dr. Jeffrey S. Kress is the Dr. Bernard Heller Chair in Jewish Education and director of research at the Leadership Commons of the William Davidson Graduate School of Education of JTS.
This article is part of a series from the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS on training educators to lead inclusive learning communities.