Let’s not forget the special-needs students

Let’s not forget the special-needs students

Kudos to Stephen Glicksman for reminding the public that the needs of those students in our community who require some form of “special education” must be kept in mind as part of the current discourse regarding yeshiva day schools and high schools in our area. But while Dr. Glicksman focused primarily upon the needs of those students in “mainstream” programs who require specific “pull-out services” to supplement their regular classroom learning, I would like, as a parent of a “special-needs” child, to expand on his comments and call attention to the needs of those youngsters who, because of their disabilities, cannot be in a mainstream yeshiva at all, but who rather require the kind of program offered by a school such as Sinai-Special Needs Institute.

Continuing the conversation… I imagine that most people would agree, at least in principle, that special-needs children too are entitled to a proper Jewish education, at least to the degree that any such entitlement exists for anyone else. Is there any reason that my wife and I too should not expect our son, who is now 14 years old and a student at Sinai’s high school program at Torah Academy in Teaneck, to be able to daven daily with a minyan, to put on his tefillin each morning together with his peers. and to bentsch after eating lunch with his friends? Should we too not want our child to learn about the Torah portion each week, to become familiar, on his level, with the laws of Shabbat, kashrut, and the like, and to be able to participate in a meaningful way in our family’s seder on Passover? Is there any reason that our son too should not have the opportunity to spend his school day with children from like-minded families who share our values, our culture, and our general world outlook? We expected – and indeed received – all of the above benefits when we sent his siblings to the local yeshiva day schools and high schools; why should we not want the same for him just because he has special needs?

And yet the students with special needs have for some time been the stepchildren of our community, or so it appears. Somehow, the prevalent attitude seems to be that while one may in some vague way feel sorry for these Jewish children, while one may sympathize with their parents because of the difficulties they have to endure in raising them, at least to the extent that one can understand it, and while one may even offer some level of financial support for the programs that cater to these children, serving their educational needs is not really a major communal responsibility. And so, many letters, articles, proposals, debates, plans, and ideas about how to respond to “the yeshiva tuition crisis” are presented – at meetings, in the press, on blogs, and in Jewish organizational groups – with little if any apparent consideration of addressing the needs of the special-education population.

As a result of this attitude, the parents of special-needs children who want them to have a yeshiva education have long had to face realities that would be deemed absolutely unacceptable in the mainstream population. Several years ago, when it was determined that the three yeshiva day schools in our area could not accommodate the rapidly growing number of children in the community, pressure was brought to bear – appropriately – on rabbinic and other leaders to create another day school. And so it was done, despite the tremendous burden, financially and otherwise, which this generated. Now, thank God, we have two additional day schools nearby. But I do not recall anyone suggesting that the students who could not fit into the then existing schools should be bused to a day school 30 miles away that had the capacity to house them. Such a recommendation would have been considered preposterous; a new school simply had to open right here, and nothing, whether money or logistics, could be an object.

But when I wanted to my son to have a yeshiva day school education, I, like other parents of special needs children in Teaneck, had no choice for five years but to put him on a bus to Livingston. His trip lasted 45 minutes to an hour each way, a difficult commute for anyone, let alone for a child with his various special issues riding with other children with their various special issues. Moreover, in his last year there, the transportation alone cost us more than $5,000 above and beyond the regular school tuition. For the special-needs community, the unacceptable becomes the necessity.

Which brings me to my primary point: A few weeks ago, in the midst of all this conversation about the tuition crisis, in the midst of the general economic downturn, and in the midst of hearing about people who have lost their jobs and are out of work, we received a letter from Sinai indicating that the tuition for our son would be raised for next year. By $10,000. To a total of $45,000. Let me stress that I do not blame the school at all; nobody there is becoming rich off this money. Like all other charitable institutions, Sinai has been hurt by a significant drop in contributions this past year; as its letter made clear, this is simply what it costs to provide the excellent education that the school offers to special-needs children. Without this money, the school cannot continue; indeed, several parents with whom I have spoken wonder whether the school will survive for the long haul. Such tuition is obviously prohibitive for most people, even taking into account the scholarships that the school does make available. Who can afford to pay this kind of money for just one child – year after year after year – especially on top of the costs for private occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, behavioral therapy, special diets, and special summer programs, which many of these children need?

So while there is discussion elsewhere in the community about the relative merits of a “Rolls-Royce” education and a “Chevrolet” education, parents of special-needs students have to foot the bill for a “Ferrari” education. And if one wants a Jewish school for this kind of child in our area, there is no option – it’s either a Ferrari or nothing. What will my wife and I do? To take our son out of Sinai at Torah Academy, where he is, thank God, truly flourishing educationally, socially, and religiously, and enroll him in public school seems unthinkable. But if the dollars are not there, they are not there; if the school is ever not there, it will not be there, and then we’ll have no choice. Let nobody make a mistake – there are Jewish special-needs children in our community right now who are not getting a Jewish education because their parents cannot afford the astronomical costs associated with it; I fear that their ranks will now grow and that my child may have to be among them.

The purpose of my remarks here is not, God forbid, to complain about my lot in life or to criticize anybody. Most parents of special-needs students, my wife and I included, understand and accept that they have to pay more for their children’s education because of the highly individualized instruction and services that are provided for them. This despite the fact that, as has been pointed out by others, parents of gifted students are not asked to pay extra tuition so that their children will be able to benefit from specialized advanced courses (often taught in very small groups), nor are the parents of youngsters on a school sports team (together with just a small percentage of the overall student body) asked to pick up the tab for all the many costs connected with fielding the team. Rather, I write these words in order to respectfully request that as the community as a whole responsibly confronts, as indeed it should, the serious challenges relating to the current crisis in Jewish education, the plight of the children with special needs should not be forgotten or ignored. These children are part of our community as well and they’ve been treated as second-class citizens for too long.