OROT’s Day School Revolution

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OROT  is the primary organization in the area for providing services for Jewish day school students with learning disabilities.

The Schwartzbaum family’s journey to Northeast Philadelphia began at the Jewish day schools in Passaic, N.J.

There, Chavie Schwartzbaum was told repeatedly by the schools that they didn’t feel equipped to accommodate her oldest son, Pinchas, then 3, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and accompanying anxiety and behavioral issues.

Two years of diving in and out of public school programs while trying to find a Jewish day school solution for Pinchas’ future didn’t work.

Even an attempt on Schwartzbaum’s part to pay for a shadow to follow Pinchas around one of the schools for a week “just to give him exposure” to a Jewish day school environment was met with rejection.

“It was very, very disturbing,” Schwartzbaum said of the refusals. “He’s just a 6-year-old Jewish boy; he’s just as much of a wild kid as anybody else.”

Eventually, the family traveled to Philadelphia, Schwartzbaum’s hometown, to look at a program called OROT, a local organization that supports students with moderate to severe learning disabilities in Jewish day schools.

The group has programs at most of the Jewish elementary schools in the area, including at both the Wynnewood and Melrose Park campuses of the Perelman Jewish day school, Politz Hebrew Academy and Torah Academy. The only elementary school that does not employ the OROT program is Abrams Hebrew Academy, which recently hired two new special education teachers to boost its capabilities to work with students with learning disabilities.

The Schwartzbaums were so enamored with the program at Politz, which is self-contained but aims to mainstream its special needs students with regular classes, that they relocated to Philadelphia last summer.

“The teachers were so welcoming, and it was so affordable as far as special education programs go,” said Schwartzbaum, an accountant. “Politz wants these OROT kids there, and they want the OROT kids to be part of their recess and chagigot.”

Though the Schwartzbaums’ search for a program ended happily, they are enjoying the fruits of what has been a long road for the special needs community in Philadelphia. And by the accounts of many involved with the Jewish day school scene for students with disabilities, there is still a long way to go, especially on the high school level.

While the public school system must accommodate all students with learning disabilities, as per the 1990 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, private schools have had no such legal requirements.

Though most of the local Jewish day schools have long had some type of extra help available to students, usually in the form of a resource teacher, there weren’t any full-time classes or resources for students with mild or severe learning obstacles. Until about 20 years ago, families like the Schwartzbaums, who wanted their children to receive a Jewish day school education, had limited options.

But in 1998, the special needs community gained an important spokeswoman in the form of Gail Norry, a longtime leader in Philadelphia’s Jewish community who currently serves as the campaign chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

At that time, Norry’s son, Ben, then age 3, was diagnosed with pervasive developmental disorder, a form of autism. Since both Norry and her husband, Elliot, were big proponents of sending their children to Jewish day school — their oldest daughter was already attending Perelman at the time — she began looking into how Ben could fit into Perelman.

“We had heard that the school was not very friendly to having kids with special needs,” Norry recalled.

Around this time, Perelman underwent an administrative change, with Jay Leberman taking charge as headmaster. Norry, on the school’s board at the time, learned that at Leberman’s previous job at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Metropolitan Chicago, his school had been involved with Keshet, a group that works to provide educational programs for “individuals with intellectual disabilities operating according to traditional Jewish values,” according to its website.

Norry said she approached Leberman about starting a similar program in Philadelphia, and the foundations for OROT were laid.

“We want to give a Jewish education to those families that want their children to have them,” said Beverly Bernstein, an educator who has spearheaded OROT since its inception. “We went to all of the area day schools and told the principals, ‘We don’t want you to counsel children out of your schools anymore — you keep your mild to moderate students, we want your moderate to severe.’ ”

Now the program has nearly 50 students at the various schools, and this past year branched out to the Robert Saligman Middle School of the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, where there are currently five students. Though there had been some variation of the OROT program at Saligman since 2001, while it was still part of Perelman, the program wasn’t ready in time to kick off when the middle school merged with Barrack in 2013.

But having an OROT program follow Saligman to Barrack after the merger was part of the memorandum of understanding reached between the two schools, according to Susan Friedman, who was the principal of Saligman and still heads the middle school at Barrack.

The current middle school program at Barrack allows the special needs teacher to go with the students into the mainstream class. Friedman said she thinks the program, called Push In Plus or PIP, “is the very best program that we could possibly have here at this point in time at this school because it also has to be within the parameters of everything that exists at Barrack,” Friedman said.

At other area day schools, such as at Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley and Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees, N.J., which  run elementary and middle schools, they don’t have self-contained classrooms like the OROT programs but they have invested in hiring new special needs teachers to meet a growing demand from their respective student bodies.

“We’re fulfilling our mission and doing the best we can with the resources that we have,” Rabbi Moshe Schwartz, Kellman’s head of school, said, noting that his school works closely with the Camden County Educational Services Commission, which provides programs and some services like speech therapy, occupational therapy or teachers aides.

But, he conceded, there’s a limit to how much a regular teacher can do to help a special needs student, even with some extra help on the side, when they have to teach 16 or 18 other students in the classroom.

“If one student has an IEP that we can service with the compensation education, then we do,” Schwartz said, referring to an individualized education program. “What I can say is we’ve counseled students out of the school because we’re self-aware enough to know when we can’t meet the educational needs of a child.

“It goes both ways — because we’re so worried about being focused on those children at the lower end, we need to also double our efforts to students on the upper end and in the middle, so that we’re not just bringing up the bottom — and that’s a challenge when you’re always worried about budget and money and resources.”

Observers and families that participate say that although OROT has made progress over the last decade or so in raising awareness — and providing services — for special needs education, there is still a lot of work to be done. And as Norry and others acknowledged, the answers aren’t so simple.

For one thing, there’s the cost. OROT programs are heavily subsidized through a $500,000 annual budget pooled from a Federation grant, funds from the Abramson Family Foundation, the Kohelet Foundation and private donations. Parents pay an extra $9,000 in tuition to help cover the costs of having teachers work with very few students.

High schools — where a program like OROT doesn’t yet exist in the area — are more complicated then elementary schools, said Norry, because whereas younger students can have one secular teacher and one Jewish teacher meet all their needs, high school students study with a wider array of teachers in various subjects.

“We’re looking to develop a system to be able to bridge that gap; when the kids are younger, it’s easier to individualize the program,” Norry said.

Kohelet Yeshiva High School briefly had a program for students on the lower end of the learning spectrum, using a $35,000 grant from the Kohelet Foundation to hire a teacher and purchase computers for a remedial track to accommodate those who tested significantly below grade level.

But the program closed last year after the grant ran out and the school determined that continuing the program wasn’t viable, according to Sharon Baker, Kohelet’s director of admissions and communications.

While neither Kohelet nor Kosloff Torah Academy High School for Girls have a self-contained style classroom, they do have resource teachers to provide extra help. Kohelet also has a learning center, which was established four years ago, where students can receive extra help for reading, math and Jewish studies classes.

For its part, Barrack’s high school program is equipped to take on students that come in with an IEP, according to Barbara Albert, who is the chair of the school’s resource department. That generally means students with slight learning disabilities or who need a little bit of help in a certain subject area. Barrack also runs a program for students who need special accommodations like shorter research assignments and easier tests.

But students currently in Barrack’s middle school PIP program would likely need extra academic help beyond the resource room in order for them to be able to remain for high school.

Besides the investment of money and manpower into the PIP program, Norry said, there is another issue of a more delicate nature that has been holding back high schools from developing in-depth special needs programs.

“There’s a lot of pressure on schools to achieve high academic standards in order to compete with the other private schools,” she said, adding that she “definitely” believes that has been a factor in preventing OROT from getting into the high schools. Since OROT students are likely to receive lower scores than their peers on tests like the SATs, a large OROT cohort might lower the overall test scores, which could be construed by some as a sign of lower academic standards at the school.

Mindy Andelman whose son, Mikey, is a sixth-grader as part of the PIP cohort at Barrack, is well aware of this.

“As a PIP parent, and I know the other PIP parents would agree, we would never want to harm Barrack’s name in any way,” said Andelman. She suggested that she would be fine if somehow their children were listed separately.

Ultimately, she said, the most important thing to her is that Mikey, who has expressive learning delay, receives a strong Jewish education and gets to experience the day school environment.

The PIP program’s existence and ongoing talks of it extending into high school are proof that the times are changing and that awareness of learning disabilities is on the rise, Andelman said, echoing the sentiment of many parents and teachers interviewed.

“It’s the attitude that these kids are part of our community and need to be included,” Norry said, adding that the issue of special needs students is often in the news, which has led to a more accepting culture.

“The more we can have that attitude throughout all our institutions — like synagogues, camps, schools, socialization programs — the better off we all are.”

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