Inclusion: In All of OUR Hands

[This post is part of a series from the Ruderman Family Foundation which explores the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community.]

by Dr. Alan Oliff and Nancy Kriegel

Thanks to a number of visionary Jewish leaders, philanthropists, and activists the interest and demand for inclusion of all members of the Jewish community in our schools, synagogues, and other institutions has finally risen to a priority level. The concept of inclusion of students with diverse learning needs has been a topic of conversation in the field of public education for some time. Yet, only within the past 5-10 years have most Jewish day schools recognized the responsibility to include a more diverse population of students and to create the conditions for success of all students.

To be clear, as a field we certainly do not have all of the answers. Effectively integrating and including all students in a particular school setting remains a complicated proposition. That said, it is a surmountable challenge for school administrators, educators, and families – and some truths are known:

  1. Research has shown that students with learning challenges do well when integrated in schools and classes with typically developing peers.
  2. Schools with a whole school approach and a vision that establishes inclusion as a school-wide expectation and valued practice are best positioned to succeed. Piecemeal approaches are generally not sustainable.
  3. Achieving a successful whole school vision requires that all educators within a given school be given the support and professional development necessary to make the vision a reality.

With these guiding principles, some Jewish day schools have made important strides and implemented new programs and services to accommodate a wider array of learners with varying abilities. Yet there is still much to do. As our field works through this process, we should have both a sense of urgency and an understanding of the realities on the ground. It is important to recognize that it took the public school system decades to achieve more universal acceptance of inclusion as a core practice, in many instances forced by legislative mandate.
With no legislative mandate – but rather a moral imperative – Jewish day schools are achieving significant progress in this area in a comparatively short amount of time. In most communities, it no longer is acceptable for day schools to simply turn away a student with learning challenges. Our Jewish day school educators, as well as our parent bodies, have become sensitized to the needs of diverse learners and, in general, our communities have made commitments to finding creative solutions so that every Jewish child has a place in school. Yes, the system is not perfect but the “big picture” looks increasingly better for students with special needs who want to attend Jewish day schools.

Of course, enrollment and attendance of diverse learners are merely starting points toward the ultimate vision of full inclusion. To achieve this – an environment in which all students, regardless of ability, have a sense of belonging and status as full-fledged members of their class – the whole school approach and a uniform philosophy toward all learners in a school are required. Resources, strategic thinking, and best practices are all needed for this vision to become reality and to succeed.

In Boston, we can point to the B’Yadenu project as one model paving the way toward successful inclusion. Funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation and Ruderman Family Foundations, B’Yadenu involves six day schools in the area working to implement school-wide change so that educators build their skills and capacity to meet the needs of diverse learners. With school leadership seeking to establish inclusion as the norm, along with the availability of philanthropic dollars to support teacher training and improved practice, we have already seen important advances toward inclusion. The experiences of the B’Yadenu schools also have provided an opportunity to network and share lessons learned about inclusion with other schools in Boston and beyond.

Certainly, changing school practices to a degree that will lead to success in this endeavor can be complicated. Our best chance for sustained success is to collaborate with school educators and to expand our network of schools and communities that share our sense of urgency and moral imperative. As we continue to learn best practices and develop models of success, our schools and all students will further benefit from an environment of inclusiveness and an understanding of the needs of diverse learners.

Dr. Alan Oliff is the Director of the Initiative for Day School Excellence at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, a position he has held since 2008. Prior to that, for much of his 37 year career as a public school teacher, special education administrator, and superintendent of schools, he was instrumental in challenging the separation of general and special education and with colleagues creating new models for inclusion. Dr. Oliff’s specific areas of interest include strategic planning for schools and school systems, establishing innovative and inclusive special education programs, creating and measuring school excellence, and fostering ways for teachers, administrators, and parents to work collaboratively on school improvement.

Nancy Kriegel is the Assistant Director of the Initiative for Day School Excellence at Combined Jewish Philanthropies, where she focuses on projects relating to advocacy, access and excellence in Greater Boston’s Jewish day schools. An attorney by training, Ms. Kriegel held a number of volunteer positions in various Jewish organizations – including serving as co-president of Gateways: Access to Jewish Education – prior to assuming a professional role in the field of Jewish education and policy.