February 28, 2018

Who Can Be This Child’s Friend? A Thriving Model of Inclusion at Luria Academy

Throughout the country, Jewish day schools have struggled with the question of how to incorporate children who have learning differences, ranging from dyslexia and dysgraphia to autism to social and emotional issues, into their classrooms. In many cases, heartbroken principals end up counseling such children out of day schools and into more specialized learning environments, acknowledging that they simply aren’t equipped to serve a wide range of learners. And in some cases, that is the necessary step.

But an inclusion model is thriving at Luria Academy of Brooklyn, where children with special needs comprise as much as a third of each classroom.

“Every child learns differently,” said Amanda Pogany, Luria’s head of school, And at Luria, we differentiate how we teach each child based on how they learn,” she said. “Our teachers are differentiating every single one of their lessons, so whether a child is considered to have special needs or not, teachers are thinking about how that child learns and what that child needs and ways to support that child.”

At Luria, a Jewish day school with 250 students in preschool through eighth grade, inclusion is built into the fabric of the school. Its Montessori-inspired classrooms consist of mixed-age groupings, in which students spend their days learning in small, fluid clusters and pairings, guided by the three or four teachers (plus a designated “tone keeper”) who are assigned to each room. At any given moment, one teacher may pull aside a handful of children who are struggling to understand a math concept, while another teacher works with a group of students who were so captivated by the weekly Torah portion that they have decided to write a play about it.

Who Can Be This Child’s Friend? A Thriving Model of Inclusion at Luria Academy
Inclusive learning at Luria Academy.

Teachers are encouraged to consider themselves “facilitators of learning.” Because all children receive differentiated instruction all day long, incorporating those whose needs may be very different is not as much of a stretch. And when a speech therapist or reading specialist “pushes in” to a classroom to work with a student as part of their Individualized Education Plan, or IEP (a document outlining services that children require and are entitled to by law), it feels like a natural extension of what’s going on elsewhere.

Luria has earned a reputation for the success of its inclusion model, for both accepting and embracing students with special needs, and the school has become something of a laboratory for day schools across the country. More than a dozen schools have sent teachers and staff to observe Luria’s program in action, and to identify ways they can replicate its successes back home.

Special needs inclusion is part of the bigger picture of Luria’s mission: Creating a Jewish community that is fully, deeply pluralistic, on all levels — where children can recognize one another’s differences and approach them with curiosity, not judgment.

“For us, this is part of the larger picture of diversity,” Pogany said. “The other piece that’s so valuable is that students with special needs can have neurotypical peers. They can be fully integrated, but also get support in the way they need.”

The emphasis on inclusion also benefits students who are not classified as having special needs. First, neurotypical students learn patience, compassion and empathy in a meaningful, organic way. Second, staff members often find that decisions they make to create a positive learning environment for children with special needs end up benefiting everyone. When they designed classrooms to create plenty of nooks where children with attention disorders could retreat for some peace and solitude, that benefited everyone. And tactile, hands-on materials and lessons that teachers create in an effort to reach students with cognitive impairments often end up resonating with their classmates in powerful ways.

Who Can Be This Child’s Friend? A Thriving Model of Inclusion at Luria Academy
Differentiated learning at Luria Academy.

Plus, children who have deficits in certain areas show themselves to be fabulous role models in other areas.

Luria has honed its approach to inclusion over the years, learning from experience what’s effective and what falls flat, what can be tweaked and what must be rethought entirely.

“We are constantly evaluating ourselves and seeing what’s working and what’s not working, and how can we do this better,” said Channah Lepkivker, Luria’s director of support services.

Luria has grown from the ground up, so some of its first classes had fewer children and a larger share of children with special needs. In the younger grades, where classes are full and the school has a growing wait list, students with special needs make up about a third of the classroom —which administrators have found to be the right number.

“It really depends on the dynamics of the classroom,” Lepkivker said. “Some of the questions we think a lot about are, ‘Who can be this child’s friend? Who can be partners for them in learning?’”

The school has also learned to work closely with parents to evaluate, on a regular basis, whether the Luria environment continues to make sense — as their own children’s needs evolve, and as the environment in the classroom shifts with the development of their neurotypical peers. For example, a child with dyslexia may thrive until middle school, when the reading workload becomes more intense. And a child on the autism spectrum may blend in socially when children are younger, but struggle when kids get older and the social dynamics change.

“Something we’re talking a lot about now is having that conversation with parents at every single cycle,” Lepkivker said. “In fourth to fifth grade, or sixth to seventh grade, there may be some social-emotional challenges there, with children wanting to connect with peers. Sometimes it’s a matter of having the parents be aware that there may be more challenges ahead for a child.”

Who Can Be This Child’s Friend? A Thriving Model of Inclusion at Luria Academy
Photos courtesy of Luria Academy.

In some cases, parents choose to keep their children at Luria, where they are part of a diverse Jewish community. In other cases, they may decide that it’s time for a different setting.

Then there are moments that highlight the inclusion model at its best, benefiting the entire school community in extraordinary ways.

One middle school student with a range of issues (including autism, obsessive compulsive disorder and academic delays) had for years sat in a special chair, not allowing anyone to come within a foot of him. After he was at the school for several years, staff members noticed that he had begun sitting in different chairs — a huge development.

One day, the student was walking in the hallway and passed a peer, unexpectedly calling out, “Hey, high five!” and lifting up his hand. The peer stopped and did a double take, surprised that his longtime classmate was initiating physical contact. “Wait, are you OK with having high-fives?” the peer asked. “In that case, my hand is always available for a high-five.”

For Pogany, that anecdote crystallizes the power and promise of inclusion.

“We are raising a generation of Jewish children that approaches the Jewish community and the world with open minds and open hearts,” she said. “We’re sending the message that students with special needs belong in our communities and our classrooms, and also on our playdates and at our birthday parties.”

More to Consider