Jewish day schools in St. Louis aim to help students with special needs

Students and learning specialists collaborate in Epstein Hebrew Academy’s “Brain Cave,” its department for student support services.

BY ERIC BERGER, STAFF WRITER

On July 30, Chana Novack, the mother of a fourth-grader, posted on the St. Louis Jewish Mamas Facebook page that eight children were not returning to Orthodox Jewish schools this year because of their “behavioral and learning needs.”

“I’m sure there are many more [people] in the Jewish community who find themselves needing to provide their children with a Jewish education outside of the day schools and existing Hebrew schools,” wrote Novack, a co-director of Chabad on Campus at Washington University.

She was correct: The issue is not limited to eight students.

Despite efforts in recent years by Novack and others to provide better Jewish education for that slice of population, parents and leaders of Jewish day schools say some families are still left without financially feasible options for their children with special needs. 

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Novack, whose son has had developmental delays, was recently diagnosed with being on the autism spectrum and is in the 99th percentile gifted, said: “We feel that this is a community issue. Children in our community shouldn’t (be denied) access to something because their parents can’t pay for it, or because (they) have to make 20, 30, 40 phone calls to find someone who might have awareness of what the issue is and be able to work with them.”

Finding a way to offer better support

In recent decades,  the American Jewish community has increased its efforts to provide educational opportunities for all learners, according to educators in the field. In 2011, RAVSAK, a national organization that supported Jewish day schools, devoted an entire issue of its journal to special education. In 2017, the Journal of Jewish Education did the same thing. 

The Journal stated that the conversation has shifted from “why” Jewish day schools need to provide special education to “how” they should do so.

Jewish leaders in Florida and New York have started day schools dedicated to Jewish children with special needs. And in Boston, the late philanthropist Morgan E. Ruderman donated millions of dollars to improving Jewish special education within existing local day schools. 

Debbie Niderberg, executive director of Hidden Sparks, a nonprofit that provides professional development for Jewish day school educators, said: “We are finding that more attention is being paid to child-centered learning and exploring different models and figuring out how to reach a range of learners in the classroom.”

The struggle to provide quality special education options is not limited to the Jewish community or to private schools. Part of that challenge is related to the increasing number of students who need additional resources not provided in the traditional classroom. For example, in 2000, one in 150 children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Education. in 2014, the number was one in 59. Nationwide, there is also a shortage of special education teachers, the Education Department reports. 

In St. Louis, Jewish day schools have put additional resources into special education, administrators say. Last fall, Independent School Association of the Central States, an accreditation organization, told Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School that its learning support team, which includes a speech pathologist, among others, had not mirrored the growth of the school, said Cheryl Maayan, who heads the pluralistic Jewish day school. She estimates that the school has to tell about three families each year that they cannot accommodate a child.

“Sometimes we will tell a family, ‘We can do this much for your child. We can provide 30 minutes of speech pathology and an hour of academic support, but your child needs more than that, and we need your commitment to provide that outside of school,’ ” Maayan said. 

H.F. Epstein Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school, also has turned families away, said Rabbi Yaakov Green, head of school. Educators describe it as “counseling out.”

“While it is challenging as we never want to lose a student, putting the students’ needs first is a priority, even if that means they transition out of our school,” Green said. “Open communication and dialogue with the family is key. We strive for partnership every step of the way.”

Novack and other parents who spoke to the Light do not blame the Jewish day schools. 

“My impression is they all wish they could do more,” said Novack, who also heads a program in which college students twice weekly act as Judaic tutors to younger students with special needs.

One mother, who did not want to be identified, has sent four of her children to Epstein. All, she said, “thank God, had a wonderful experience.” 

But a son who attended its early childhood program and the first years of elementary school has had “global developmental delays” with a “serious learning disability,” she said. He needs daily occupational, physical and speech therapy. After discussing the situation with educators at Epstein, all agreed that the boy needed to be in a self-contained special-education classroom. 

This fall, he will attend a private school with a full-time special-education teacher. The parents also will pay for a Jewish tutor twice a week. 

“He’s not happy about his situation,” his mother said. “He would much rather be attending one of the local Jewish schools. He would also rather not have such severe learning disabilities.”

She knows the situation might be different if they lived elsewhere. For example, in northern New Jersey, the SINAI Schools provide “in-house therapies and a 1-2 professional-to-student ratio,” according to its website.

She realizes, however, that it would be difficult for St. Louis, with 60,000 Jews, to replicate the New York metropolitan area. Its Jewish population is 2.5 million.

“It’s a numbers game,” she said. “To have a self-contained program like that, you need enough students to support it.”


Prioritizing education for special needs 

A family can, for example, pay for a professional to follow an individual student throughout the school day. Zina Keeler started off sending her daughter Natalie to a public school. But in first grade, she and her husband decided it “was not working for us” and instead sent her to the Soulard School, a private school in the historic downtown neighborhood. Natalie is on the autism spectrum and is “very bright and is capable of learning, but sometimes she drifts into her own world and forgets to pay attention,” her mother said.

Keeler, 46, was born in Russia when it was under Communist rule and Jews were not allowed to practice their religion freely. She never celebrated any holidays or learned much about the religion, so the idea of sending Natalie to a Jewish school appealed to her. But in order to do so, the school told her, Keeler would need a behavioral technician to shadow Natalie.

That meant that in addition to the Mirowitz tuition of $15,600, Keeler and her husband, who work as a data analyst and in information technology, respectively, would also need to pay for a technician. That typically costs $15 to $25 an hour for 7.5 hours a day, five days a week. Natalie started at the new school last week.

“It does not come without a struggle,” Keeler said. “Luckily, we can do that, but we have to make sure we prioritize, paying for the mortgage, for Natalie’s tuition. Our goal is for Natalie to be a successful adult and for her to have a job.”

Children in private religious schools in St. Louis also have the option of participating in a public supplementary education program. Special School District of St. Louis County provides after-school instruction for about 1,100 students at 22 locations; 23 of those students come from local Jewish schools, according to the district. 

“The services are not individualized,” said LeAnn Stein Bearden, coordinator of the Special Non-Public Access Program (SNAP). “When a parent decides to leave the public school and place their child in a nonpublic school, they are basically giving up a child’s individual right to the education that public school would provide.”

That said, the district has a consultation group with leaders of parochial schools to “determine how our” public funding “is spent and what services we do offer.” 

Of course, the Special School District does not offer religious education. But the Jewish day schools appear to be prioritizing special education. Despite the fact that Epstein’s enrollment has decreased in recent years due to families who have moved to Israel, Green, the head of school, said Epstein has increased staffing for children with learning challenges. It set up the “Brain Cave,” a bright, colorful classroom that students, hopefully,  don’t see as stigmatized.

“They see it as fun,” Green said. “They look forward to going.”

When he started in 2014, Green says, one special educator was on staff. Now it has five who spend at least part of their day in the Brain Cave.

“It’s a decision that the school and the lay leadership made to put our resources into the best possible product,” Green said, adding that the school strongly believes in increasing resources for “diverse learners.”

After hearing the recommendation from the accreditation committee, Mirowitz also formed a task force “to figure out how to do a better job of accommodating children with special needs,” Maayan said. 

That could mean adding personnel or making larger changes to its model. Last winter, she visited Kesher L.D., a Jewish special education program that started as an offshoot of Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach.

Maayan hopes the task force can “have something in writing” by spring. That could be a grant proposal for additional funding, she said.

Novack thinks that is what it will take for St. Louis to provide quality education to Jewish children with special needs. She and other mothers are trying to start a Judaic tutoring program, either individualized or in a group setting, for children with special needs. She estimates that 30 students are interested and that it would cost $1,000 per child for this school year. Novack and others have reached out to Jewish foundations for financial support but have not yet had success.

“It takes a lot of work for a parent to parent a child with any sort of learning differences,” she said. “I would love to see some initiative on behalf of the general Jewish community so it doesn’t just place the responsibility of implementing something like this on the head of the parents.”

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