Envisioning Inclusive Jewish Schools:
New National Survey Indicates Growth Potential

By David Farbman and Daniel Chiat

For decades, Jewish schools and congregational educational programs have grappled with how to include children who have atypical learning needs, including those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders, social-emotional challenges (such as anxiety or depression) or language-based learning disabilities. In an era when Jews are increasingly disassociating from organized Jewish life, our schools must do everything possible to ensure any and all children (and, in turn, their families) have full access to Jewish culture, ritual and experience. In short, Jewish continuity depends on inclusion.

Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, the central agency for Jewish special education in Boston and a provider of professional development in inclusion and tailored instruction to meet individual student needs around the country, recently partnered with Measuring Success, a research and consulting firm with survey expertise in the education sector, to conduct a national assessment of the field in order to better understand Jewish schools’ inclusion challenges.

Responses by Organizational Type

The “Inclusion in Jewish Education” survey anonymously asked school leaders and professionals how they currently support diverse learners, and what curricular and professional development opportunities could help them improve. Measuring Success distributed the survey instrument via email and online. Responses were received from nearly 200 leaders from Jewish educational institutions of various sizes across North America.

Over half of the responses came from the top professional (e.g., head of school, education director) of the organization, and the rest were from a mix of other administrators, board members, clergy and teachers. Measuring Success also conducted telephone interviews to complement the written survey. This article summarizes findings from Jewish day schools (JDSs) and supplementary (religious) schools.

Jewish Day Schools: A Growing Commitment to Inclusion

The survey found that Jewish day schools are taking the challenges of inclusion very seriously. A vast majority of JDSs (88 percent) prioritize providing access to diverse learners, defined as “effectively serving a wide range of learners by proactively offering professional development and implementing school systems.” Additionally, 92 percent of survey respondents reflect this commitment by indicating that professional staff are motivated to reach inclusion-related goals, and 83 percent express a desire to proactively engage field experts to offer professional development to their staff around educating diverse learners.

While these responses are encouraging, day schools may not be aiming high enough: Only 16 percent say that their entire faculty participates in ongoing training to maintain current knowledge and a repertoire of strategies to address a range of needs. Research indicates that teachers require at least 15 hours of quality professional development per year to appreciably strengthen practice. In the absence of consistent commitment to learning, how much growth can truly take place?

In the Inclusion survey, most school leaders stated that they want professional development to provide strategies to strengthen inclusion practices within individual classrooms and teach them how to support students with more significant learning needs. Further, nearly half of schools are eager to engage with field experts to provide schoolwide programming that fosters the value of inclusion, such as disability awareness curricula and activities.

In a time of stretched budgets, what resources can we reasonably expect schools to commit to inclusion efforts? In both the written responses and in conversations, survey respondents indicated that day schools have a track record of committing money to achieve inclusion-related goals. Further, they remain willing to do so in the future. Notably, nearly two-thirds indicated in the affirmative when asked if their school has access to all or most of the funding needed to achieve their inclusion goals.

Supplementary School Findings: A Long Road Ahead

Supplementary schools prioritize and carry out inclusion initiatives with less intensity than their day school counterparts. Given their reliance on part-time teachers whose educational training varies, most respondents stated that their organizations engage in limited professional and curriculum development or organizational assessment. A minority of supplementary schools represented in the survey (20 percent) give some level of training related to diverse learners to all of their faculty. Moreover, a sizable segment of supplementary school respondents (40 percent) rate their current approach to serving students with diverse learning needs as largely non-existent, or ad hoc at best.

Despite the current state of affairs, there is an appetite for improvement. The vast majority (90 percent) of supplementary school leaders indicate that they would like all of their teachers to have some familiarity with differentiated instruction to address the needs of diverse learners. Further, 75 percent of schools express a strong desire to build a more holistic approach to inclusion. Presently 56 percent of respondent schools engage in some form of professional development with outside experts.

One notable trend suggesting that educators are being proactive in addressing the needs of atypical learners is qualitative evidence suggesting a growing number of schools that have hired a staff member specifically dedicated to inclusion. Further, even though supplementary schools (as compared to day schools) manage with smaller budgets and less available time, they may be able to leverage the flexibility of their curricula and educational model to allow for more creative solutions to reach atypical learners.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The Inclusion in Jewish Education survey illustrates that the field of Jewish education demonstrates a meaningful commitment to the inclusion of diverse learners. However, there is still much room to improve. Two specific data points suggest where this growth can occur.

  • Within the day school community more than 80 percent of schools state that they have no commitment to ongoing, whole-school professional development around inclusion. Raising the number of schools that do engage in these more intensive efforts can dramatically and positively impact teachers’ capacity to better educate all learners.
  • Four in ten supplementary schools admit to engaging in essentially no effort to include a broad range of learners. This means that a significant number of students are likely not being adequately served by Jewish educational institutions.

Addressing these twin issues – both of which relate to capacity-building – requires schools to channel their expressed commitment to inclusion into demonstrable action. Often, the institutions themselves find it difficult to generate this action from within because they are challenged to see beyond what they already know and practice. Therefore, day and supplementary schools can turn to external partners to assist them in educating faculty and administrators about the intricacies of inclusion and differentiated instruction.

To have a real impact, the support from experts must go beyond simply providing tips and tidbits of information. They should work in partnership with schools to reflect deeply on school culture and practice, motivate educators and administrators to make changes as needed, organize school staff to meet these new commitments and set institutions forward on a new path of including all learners.

Clearly, developing such partnerships requires complex work and demands a significant investment of time and money. Yet, if the field of Jewish education intends to live out the principle of valuing every human being equally, this is the difficult work we must do together to build the kind of institutions and programs that reflect our highest values and ensure that every child has access to the traditions and teachings of our faith.

To join this conversation – whether you’re an educator, administrator, lay leader or consultant – please email davidf@jgateways.org.

David Farbman is Senior Director of Education, Gateways: Access to Jewish Education.
Daniel Chiat is Vice President at Measuring Success.