Is inclusion a legal “right” in Jewish day schools? According to IDEA (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), local school districts have an obligation to test students who reside in their districts to determine if they have special needs and are in need of Specially Designed Instruction. If students are in need of Specially Designed Instruction (including special education instruction), the school district must develop an IEP (Individual Education Plan) to be implemented by the school district or school placement that the school district has assigned. If the school district assigns the child to a Jewish day school, the district will pay for tuition and related services.

Will equal educational opportunities teach these children in a manner in which they can learn? However, if parents unilaterally choose to place their child in a Jewish day school, the day school has no legal obligation to implement the IEP. At times, the school district of residence may provide some related services (speech, OT, etc.) in the non-public school; more often, however, parents will need to bring their child to the public school at certain designated times to receive these services.

If there is no legal basis for inclusion in day schools, should these schools address the needs of the moderately to severely learning disabled, of those on the higher end of the autistic spectrum, of children with moderate to severe ADHD, and of children with mild to moderate developmental disabilities? Proponents of inclusion say that children with disabilities have a right to be afforded equal educational opportunities, and should not be denied based on disability. But will equal educational opportunities teach these children in a manner in which they can learn? Inclusion allows children with special needs to socialize with their peers and reduces social stigma. If we look at the student as a “whole” child, we cannot minimize the importance of socialization.

Critics of inclusion say that full inclusion takes away valuable resources needed by the child. They also say that few regular education teachers are trained for full inclusion. Special education teachers are trained in approaching educational tasks with flexibility. If one method is not working, they can quickly change to another method within the curriculum. A special education teacher must have the various strategies and techniques needed to help his/her students learn content area material. The pace of a special education classroom is different, and more reinforcement of cumulative material is done. Jewish day schools can meld these two approaches by implementing an academic self-contained/social inclusion model. This model will afford the Jewish day schools an opportunity to teach Jewish traditions and culture to the child of a family who sees the benefit of placing their child with special needs in the day school environment. It will allow the day schools to fulfill the dictum of “educate a child according to his way” (Proverbs 22:6).

Jewish day schools should recognize that children with special needs can learn, they just learn differently. By setting up an academic self-contained/social inclusion class, special education teachers can teach skills, both in general studies and Jewish studies, to meet the academic and social needs of their students. The pace is determined by the student’s mastery of the material and internalization of strategies. An academic self-contained/social inclusion classroom also affords the opportunity of teaching those skills that typical children learn by osmosis.

For example, listening skill strategies, organizational techniques and time management skills can be directly taught to the students and drilled on a daily basis throughout all content curricula. Teaching, modeling and role-playing social skills during class time will also help the students when they are with their typical peers. How does one approach a group of typical students on the playground and ask to join the game? What is the appropriate behavior during synagogue time? How far away does one stand when speaking to another person?

The special education teacher must also have the opportunity to join with the typical class in as many ways as possible. Is the mainstream teacher having story time, tefillah (prayer) time, or doing an exciting science experiment? Are there science fairs or Torah fairs? Is the typical class putting on a Chanukah or Purim play? Or is there a schoolwide Passover Seder?

Jewish day schools should recognize that children with special needs can learn, they just learn differentlyThe children from the academic self-contained/social inclusion class can be taught to join in appropriately during these times, they can be given parts in the play with their peers, and they can be prompted to join the mock Passover Seder. Preparing for these events and reinforcing skills needed in order to participate successfully in these events can be done in the academic self-contained/social inclusion classroom before joining in with the typical class.

It is safe to say that children in the academic self-contained/social inclusion classroom will not receive the same Jewish day school education as their typical peers. More time is needed to reinforce basic academic skills, and Jewish studies goals may differ. However, having them in a Jewish day school where they can live Judaism every day and are surrounded by a Jewish environment is a tradeoff that many parents happily make.

An academic self-contained/social inclusion model does not just benefit children with special needs. Typical children learn a lot from this model as well. They learn patience, kindness, acceptance and tolerance for children who may be different. These lifelong lessons will help the typical child as these students grow into adulthood.

The Jewish value of chesed and the acceptance that we are all children of G‑d is reinforced on a daily basis. In the 2007 documentary, Praying with Lior, we see the success of the academic self-contained/social inclusion model. Lior, a child with Down’s syndrome, attends a Jewish day school. Both his general studies and Jewish studies academic needs are met in a self-contained program. He is with his typical peers for, among other things, tefillah, prayer. Lior loves to pray and he is often the chazzan of his class. After he leads his class in morning prayers, one of his classmates comments, “It’s hard to understand Lior sometimes, but Hashem (G‑d) understands everyone in their own way.”

(Trachtman, I. Director. 2007. Praying with Lior. USA: First Run Features)

The challenges may seem daunting, but are surmountableImplementing an academic self-contained/social inclusion class can be a challenge on many fronts for day schools. The administrators must take the lead in wanting and maintaining such a program within the school, and must set the example in accepting the academic self-contained/social inclusion model to ensure success. The tuition for such a program can be higher than the regular tuition. Mainstream teachers must be reassured that they will be paired with a special education teacher who will accept the responsibility for educating the students with special needs. Parents of typical students will have to be reassured that the academic self-contained/social inclusion class does not mean the “watering down” of the mainstream curriculum. The challenges may seem daunting, but are surmountable, once school administrators, teachers, and parents work together to enable all types of Jewish “learners” to receive a Jewish education.