By Dan Finkel
Rebbi says: Do not look at the jug but rather at what is in it. For there are new jugs full of old [wine], and old that do not have even new [wine] within them.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers 4:20)
Research in education over the past several decades offers compelling evidence that inclusion in schools leads to positive academic and social-emotional outcomes for both students with disabilities and their general education peers. The techniques and tools that teachers use in order to differentiate and plan in these settings are the very same ones that are recommended as best practices in general education.
Here, at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, we’re proud to be part of a community that is leading the way nationally in this area with the support, guidance, and investment of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.
Unfortunately, Jewish Day Schools have not always seen inclusion as a priority, and many Jewish children did not receive the gift of a Jewish Day School education as a result. There are still real barriers to offering the level of inclusion that many of us would ideally like to implement in our schools. The cost of educating students with the most significant needs is high, and the field is already struggling with the issue of affordability for most families. There are still times when schools are faced with the need to counsel out a student whose needs are best met in settings with greater resources, but it is certainly our goal to minimize those and educate the widest range of students we possibly can serve ethically.
Parents and community members also need education in order to combat the default assumption that when a school devotes resources to students with learning differences they are in some way detracting from the resources offered to gifted or general education students. The research is clear – when we train our faculties appropriately, every single child in the school benefits significantly from inclusion. The new message in our schools has to combat these incorrect assumptions. Just because a school accepts students with learning differences does NOT mean that they don’t serve every single student enrolled with excellence. Rather, it is our commitment to inclusion and professional development that will bring up every teacher and student in the school.
As the quote above indicates, it is a fundamental error to pre-judge individuals based on labels, diagnoses, or external features. We never know what potential lies inside another human being, and our assumption should be to remember that each of us is created B’tzelem Elohim (in G-d’s image). If we truly believe that every child has a divine spark in them, then we should do anything we can to include them in our communities and fan those sparks into the kinds of flames that strengthen all of us.
Dan Finkel is Head of School, Gesher Jewish Day School, Fairfax, Va.