Integrating Special Needs Children Into the Jewish Day School System

Jan 24, 2008

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at 7, 1, 1993, pp. 20-21. Reprinted here with permission.

There has been much discussion, controversy and speculation concerning appropriate education for special needs children within the public school system. Frequently, terms such as “mainstream,” “integration” and “inclusion” have been used. These phrases have all been a by-product of PL 94-142 which states that it is the right of every child to receive an education in the “least restrictive environment” possible. But what does this mean for Jewish children and their families who want to practice and maintain those laws, customs and values which are congruent with Judaism? Many Jewish day schools are beginning to recognize the need to change their philosophy from one in which the school’s academic achievement is stressed to one in which individualized achievement is stressed. In the Chicago area, Keshet is an organization which has helped the community recognize this need. 

Keshet began ten years ago as a parent support group for Jewish families who sought Jewish educational, recreational and support services for their special needs children. Five years ago these parents began a Jewish day school for children with multiple impairments. The “Ariella Joy Frankel Keshet Day Schools” are named in memory of one of the Keshet students who touched the lives of her classmates and her school. It is Keshet’s policy to educate all special needs children, not separately, but within existing day schools, thus allowing them the opportunity to learn from their peers and to benefit from a Jewish environment. To date, Keshet administers educational programs in two elementary schools in the Chicago area – the Sager Solomon Schechter Day School and the Rosenwald School. The total enrollment of eighteen is comprised of students between the ages of four and thirteen who exhibit a variety of disabling conditions including mental retardation, physical disabilities, autism, behavior disorders, speech and language disorders, and visual impairments. These students are integrated within the host school for non-academic subjects and, in some cases, for academic subjects as well. Integrated activities include tefillah, lunch, recess, music, gym and special assemblies. Students receive the necessary special education and therapy services via the Keshet staff, such as occupational, physical and speech therapy, instruction by a vision teacher and social work services. Each child is evaluated to determine which therapies are required and the length of the sessions per week. 

Below is a guideline which presents the Keshet program and its formation. 


Keshet began with a search for the rare Jewish day school that had available space, one which was or could become wheelchair accessible. Additionally, it had to be a school with an educational director who was receptive to the idea of an integrative school.

It is Keshet’s policy to bear full responsibility, both financially and educationally, for its programs. Keshet “rents” space in its host school and is then responsible for any renovations or adaptations. Keshet is also solely responsible for designing and administering its program, providing all curricular materials, equipment and adequate staff coverage. Keshet also assures the host school that each special child will be accompanied by a Keshet teacher to all integrative classes. Since there are no financial hardships or additional educational demands placed on the host school, the only true prerequisite for initiating such a program is the willingness to try. 


Recent studies have shown that children learn best from other children. If a child with disabling conditions is placed only with other children with disabilities, that child may not learn appropriate skills. If that same child is given the opportunity to learn from mainstream children, he/she will begin to rapidly learn age appropriate social and language skills. In order to maximize each child’s potential, Keshet attempts to provide individualized educational, therapy and integrative programs. Five or six students per room allows for individualized attention while providing the opportunity for substantial group dynamics.

Once the students are selected, as much information as possible must be gathered concerning each child. Upon enrollment, lengthy discussions are held with the parents, past teachers and private therapists of each child. It is also helpful to observe the child in his/her current classroom placement. Additionally, a thorough review of the child’s history and an informal evaluation is completed. 


There have been recent debates concerning homogeneous vs. heterogeneous mixing in the classroom. Some educators feel that more can be accomplished if all students in the special education class are similar in age and functioning level. Others believe that it is better to have a variety so that students at a lower functioning level can learn from those who are more advanced. In addition, children learn to be tolerant of the shortcomings of others. Keshet has learned that to efficiently run our heterogeneous classrooms and to provide a fully individualized program there must be a high staff to student ratio. Each Keshet class is staffed by a state licensed special education teacher with a Judaic background. There are also assistants assigned to each room. A 1:2 ratio enables each child to receive ongoing instruction—in the integrative class, the special class or even just walking in the hallways. Every experience thus becomes a learning experience.


A few months before the Keshet Day School began at each of its sites, I visited the host school, on a regular basis, to get acquainted with the teachers, office staff and students. I used the opportunity to learn the day by day routine as well as the rules that students were expected to follow. A few weeks before the start of school, the parents of the host school were invited to a meeting and told about the Keshet Day School. This presented an opportunity to educate the parents concerning the need for Jewish special education. An open forum was held to describe the Keshet program and to explain how it would impact on their child’s school day. Questions and concerns were raised and addressed.

Following the parent meeting, an in-service training session was held for the teachers of the host school. A video of the children was prepared and a description of each child was presented. Most of the teachers had no experience with special needs children and were unsure and a bit fearful about relating to them. The teachers who would have more contact with the Keshet children were given additional sessions. The teachers were assured that unless they requested it, and it was deemed beneficial, the special children would not be left unattended in their classrooms.

A successful integration depends, in large measure, on adequately preparing the students of the host school. A few days prior to the opening of the school, orientation programs were arranged for each class. The fourth, fifth and sixth grades received two forty-five minute sessions. The first was an overview of the six handicapping conditions, their causes and how they are manifested. The second session addressed the Keshet students. One of the objectives of these sessions was to stress areas of common interest between Keshet and mainstream students. Another was for the mainstream students to feel comfortable with the Keshet staff, so that lf issues or concerns should later arise, lines of communication would al ready be in place. Each of the classes was shown a video of the students and invited to see the new classroom. In separate sessions, kindergarten through third grades learned about disabilities via books,* games or activities. It is not an uncommon perception among four to six year old children that a disability is a contagious condition and they should, therefore, not talk or play with a child who is different from them. These and similar fears were discussed.

It is essential that this orientation process be completed prior to the students’ arrival into the host school.


The financial responsibilities of such a program can be staggering. The cost of salaries, therapy and transportation re quire that a solid fundraising plan be prepared. Keshet relies on four sources of funds. A grant from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago greatly aids Keshet in maintaining its operating budget. The Keshet Day School is also approved by the Illinois State Board of Education as a “therapeutic day school” and has been able to obtain funding for five students. Program fees which are charged to the families help defray the cost somewhat. Since Keshet is a parent run organization, however, the governing body is extremely sensitive to the financial hardships that many of these families are undergoing. The tuition is, thus, substantially less than the cost of the program. The remaining funds are raised, either by grant writing or private donations.


The Keshet program is currently filling a great need, but must continue to grow. Due to the lack of space within host schools, Keshet now has a waiting list of approximately thirty families. We are constantly pursuing additional options for site expansion, and we hope to begin an early childhood program for children ages three to five in the local Bais Yaacov school.

We are also faced with the dilemma of how to best educate those Keshet students who are now becoming older than the children of the mainstream site. The challenge of beginning a Keshet Middle School and High School are yet to come. Another area of difficulty has been the staggering transportation costs. Finally, Keshet is committed to locating quality teachers who can help develop the Judaic curriculum. Although there are curriculum guides for teaching the learning disabled or mildly delayed children, there is limited material for teaching children with more severe involvements.


Recently, a few of the older Keshet Day School students within the Sager Solomon Schechter Day School were invited to join the sixth grade class for a Shabbaton at the school. A group of dedicated staff volunteered to supervise the five Keshet students who attended. The highlight of the weekend was the Keshet student who received an aliyah and recited the brakhot flawlessly.

When the Keshet Day School began there was great anticipation and expectation of growth for the special needs students. Keshet did not, however, anticipate the long-lasting effects that these children would have on their main stream friends, teachers and the community at large.


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Author’s Note: Keshet would be pleased to assist and advise any community willing to initiate Jewish special education classes. For further information, feel free to contact the Keshet office at 8470205-1234 or visit Keshet’s website.