Studying With Auggie

Like a lot of people – particularly educators – I read and was touched by Wonder.  The 20128290048 bestseller by  R. J. Palico has inspired schools and parents to take a hard look at themselves and take the moral litmus test that lies at the heart of the book:

How would we respond if Auggie showed up tomorrow?

As a school leader, the question was, “Is my school a place where Auggie would feel safe and loved?  Would he succeed here?”

Gross Schechter Skypes with real-life "Auggie" Gabriel Hafter.
Gross Schechter Skypes with WonderKid Gabriel Hafter.

This past week, I was re-introduced to Auggie through a real-life “Wonder” by the name of Gabriel.  Through the power of social media and six degrees of separation, I was made aware of Gabriel – a real-life, Jewish “Auggie” who has begun sharing his transformative story with Jewish day schools, including Gross Schechter a few weeks ago and the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston last spring.

It made me ask myself, as a leader of schools, “Are we providing our schools with the resources and support they need to tackle issues of difference in ways that accord with our highest Jewish values?”

I am not sure that we are.

As I continue what I feel is still my self-introduction to the field in this new role, I wanted to do some thinking together about another issue that I have a great deal of passion for – inclusion – and my enthusiasm for Schechter’s growing ability to become the inclusive Jewish day schools our community and families deserve.

We recognize that Schechter schools, Jewish day schools, private schools, etc., are not always capable of handling each and every situation appropriately. It does not mean that we are, in fact, the “best educational setting” for each Jewish child of difference or with special needs. It is hard to imagine any (private) school that can possibly claim to be that – there is way too much variation in resources, mission and children for any one school to be the “best educational setting” for every child.  It does mean, however, that we are interested in helping our schools learn to better work with families to determine if they are the best setting, to prepare a structure for children to be successful when they enroll, to establish processes to evaluate successes and failures, and to maintain healthy communication to take next steps as they occur.

[Disclaimer: My wife is a special needs educator whose academic and professional experience is with “special education inclusion”.]

In preparing to write the blog, I reviewed my research in this area I think this link from the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) provides good definitions, a concise history of inclusion, decent explanations of federal law, a fair framing of the debate between “full inclusion” and “resource room”, and examples of academic research. I encourage you to read the whole thing. But for my purposes, let me quote a few highlights:

Inclusion is a term which expresses commitment to educate each child, to the maximum extent appropriate, in the school and classroom he or she would otherwise attend. It involves bringing the support services to the child (rather than moving the child to the services) and requires only that the child will benefit from being in the class (rather than having to keep up with the other students). Proponents of inclusion generally favor newer forms of education service delivery.

This would be an accurate expression of our attitude and aspirations for the children in our schools with special needs. (Please understand that GIFTEDNESS is a SPECIAL NEED. “Inclusion” includes our philosophy of how we strive to meet the needs of gifted students as well.)

I am being this descriptive because I want to address a common concern of parents – how will having special needs students in my child’s class impact the experience of my child? Or, won’t the teacher have to spend so much time focusing on the special needs students that s/he won’t be able to provide my child with the individualized attention we expect in private school?

First the research…

There is no evidence that the inclusion of special needs students has any negative impact on the academic experience of the other students if the classroom is structured and staffed appropriately.  This is why the conversation about whether or not a school is the “best educational setting” is so important.  We have to be honest with parents about our resources and abilities.  We should never bring in a child with needs we are not confident we can meet – that risks harm to the child and to the class.  Each child and each situation is different and is handled case by case.  But with the right attitude, support, and training – we are moving to be more capable with more students.

So if there is no impact on the academic experience of the other students…might there be other extremely important and positive outcomes of having special needs students in the classroom?  YES!

While researchers are cautious in their conclusions, there are some positive signs. In particular, students in special education and regular education showed several positive changes, including:

  • A reduced fear of human differences accompanied by increased comfort and awareness (Peck et al., 1992);
  • Growth in social cognition (Murray-Seegert,1989);
  • Improvement in self-concept of non-disabled students (Peck et. al., 1992);
  • Development of personal principles and ability to assume an advocacy role toward their peers and friends with disabilities;
  • Warm and caring friendships (Bogdan and Taylor, 1989).

Do these not seem like the kinds of values a Jewish day school ought to live by?  Would this not represent our highest aspirations for the moral development of our children?  Does this not seem like a good way of making menchen?

Schechter has a passion for meeting the needs of Jewish children – special or otherwise. One doesn’t have to choose between meeting the needs of special needs children or the highly gifted (or the overwhelming majority of children who are neither).  Our schools’ work with children of difference and their families does not detract from their work with all of their other children and families – it enhances it.

To repeat, how we deal with difference in our schools is a moral litmus test…

When my daughter graduates (please God many years from now) from her Schechter school and I watch her walk across the bimah to receive her diploma, my wife and I will surely be proud of her academic achievements (whatever they may be).  But we will be even more proud of who she will have become having learned to love and respect all her classmates no matter who they are, what they know or can do, or however quirky their personality traits might be. And we will be blessed for having had the ability to have her educated in a place that didn’t require families to have to choose between.

Gabriel Hafter is a 12 year old from Las Vegas, Nevada. He has Treacher Collins Syndrome. Gabriel has been appointed a WonderKid, by the national Children’s Craniofacial Association. Gabriel speaks to schools around the country, via Skype or in person, about being different, the book, Wonder, by R.J.Palacio, and his anti-bullying campaign to Choose Kind, inspired by the book.
If you would like Gabriel to present his 7 Wonder’s of Choosing Kind campaign to your school, please contact Jackie Hafter via phone at 702-845-3731 or email at [email protected].

Aren’t All Jewish Day Schools “Community” Schools?

paper-chain-in-the-dark-1215912-mAren’t all Jewish Day Schools “Community” Schools?

Extended preamble…

Some blog posts evolve into academic mini-treatises with ample hyperlinking both for proper crediting and to stimulate further learning.

Some blog posts are born from a passionate feeling and sometimes read like opinion pieces.

Other blog posts are confessional and lead to catharsis (for me) or humanizing (of me).

The blog posts that are the hardest to write – as we are about to discover – are the ones that are born from a genuine question and a desire to solicit a crowdsourced response.  Not to drive traffic to my blog or raise my social media profile.  But because I am sincerely interested in learning from my colleagues, stakeholders, readers and friends.  I am grappling with a difficult question and I am interested in serious, thoughtful, diverse and challenging answers to help me develop an authentic answer (for me).

The reason these posts are the hardest to write is that within the world of education, and the Jewish educational world even more so, the blogosphere is still largely populated by lurkers.  You are out there and you are reading blogs (which is great), but you do not (yet) feel comfortable contributing to the talmudic chain of commentary that makes blogging so wonderfully Jewish and potentially valuable. I learn some through the process of writing, to be sure, but I learn a ton through the process of collaborating with you through the commentary.

Let’s make a game of it and let’s aim big.  The 20th comment received will receive a prize from me.  That means you have to encourage others to comment as well so you can position yourself as number 20.  Let’s go for it!

End of extended preamble…


What is a “Community Day School”?

[NOTE: I am PURPOSELY NOT looking up and sharing definitions nor visiting RAVSAK (the Community Day School Network) for answers.  Not because I don’t think their answers are the correct ones.  They probably are.  But because how people – not just people, Heads of School, Board Chairs, Foundations, Donors, – understand what those words mean is at the crux of what I have been thinking about.]

Stuff I Think I Believe:

  • “Community” and “Pluralism” are not necessarily the same thing but they are sometimes used interchangeably.
  • Every Jewish day school thinks of itself in terms of creating community, being a community for its students and parents, being a healthy part of the larger Jewish community it lives in, and has an increasingly religiously diverse student population for whom it tries to craft an inclusive nonjudgmental religious community.
  • To say that a PARDES, Schechter, YU or Orthodox day school is “ideological” and a RAVSAK or Community Day School is “non-ideological” feels like a false dichotomy.

That’s probably controversial enough for now.

I know more about Schechter than anything else and I have firsthand experience heading a Schechter in a Jewish community where it served and serves as the non-Orthodox Jewish day school.  It has a diverse student population with levels of Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, unaffiliated, secular Israeli, etc., that are commensurate to many other Schechter schools and, to my understanding, many Community Day Schools.

In terms of Jewish ritual and practice, it looks and feels very much in the “center”.  This, too, is similar to many “community day schools” where the “center” is the natural compromise between the various religious communities who make up its population.

Yes, in some cases the driver for Schechter’s center approach is a commitment to Conservative Jewish practice.  Yes, in some cases the driver for a Community Day School’s center approach is a commitment to compromise or accommodation.  But there are also cases where the reverse is true in both settings and lines remain ever-blurry.

More Stuff I Think I Believe:

  • There are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform day schools who are explicitly NOT Community Day Schools.  They typically thrive in communities with large enough Jewish populations to sustain multiple schools with more targeted religious purposefulness.
  • There are Orthodox day schools who are Community Day Schools (either by self-defnition or RAVSAK affiliation or both).
  • There are Reform day schools who are Community Day Schools (ditto).
  • If Orthodox and Reform day schools can be ideologically-identified and still labeled “Community”…why not Schechter?  [Fact: There are Schechter schools who define themselves as both.  There are already Schechter day schools who are Community Day Schools.]
  • There are also Community Day Schools who live and breathe a mission-driven pluralism that is clearly nondenominational or post-denominational or trans-denominational.  Whether you want to call “pluralism” an ideology in its own right is a fair question, but the point here is to acknowledge that there are absolutely Community Day Schools whose approach to Jewish living and learning is mission-driven and clearly not Reform, Conservative or Orthodox.  It wouldn’t be fair to leave that out.

Here’s why it matters to me.

It is no secret that in recent years there have been a number of Schechter schools who have explored changing their official affiliation status from “Schechter” to “Community”. In a few cases this has genuinely been about a purposeful, mission-driven decision to change the way Judaism lives and breathes and/or to change dramatically the rigor and commitment to Jewish Studies for whatever reason. In many cases, however, the exploration is born from a feeling or hope that by changing their external status it will somehow cause a spike in enrollment or fundraising because it is signaling that the school is now of and for the community in a way that it wasn’t or couldn’t be as a “Schechter”.

This perception remains despite the data proving that the former is not true and the fact that Schechter schools can be and often are as “of and for the community” as any other kind of school.

Changing one’s affiliation status without any corresponding change to mission does a disservice to affiliation by rendering it a business equation. It reduces “Schechter” to a caricature and “Community” to a strategy. It denies both the full meaning of their philosophies and confuses the marketplace.


It is also the case (see Jewish Montessori) that schools that don’t see themselves as “Schechter” by its narrowest definition are beginning to explore how they may fit in with “Schechter” by a more expansive understanding of what it means and has to say about Jewish education. And so the lines between schools and networks blur even more…

What does it all mean?  For our schools and for the field?  Aren’t all Jewish day schools “community” schools? And why does it matter anyway?

Don’t just talk amongst yourselves!  Talk to me and to each other.

COMMENT.  (Remember…20th comment gets a prize.  Spam doesn’t count!)

Labor Pains

The timing of the Labor Day, the holiday created to celebrate the American labor Labor-Daymovement, with the return to school of one of the most picked-upon occupations in our society, teachers, does not escape me.

As reported over the summer in the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles,

As true believers in education, Jews have served as teachers and professors, as well as active parents watching fretfully over the public schools — even those that are not widely attended by Jewish students.  Jews have voted overwhelmingly in favor of school expenditures.  As beliefs in science and education have been challenged on the right, Jews have strongly retained loyalty to their heritage of intellectual inquiry from the European Enlightenment.

Politically, the Jewish community historically worked hard to support teachers and, in doing so, public teacher unions (and unions in general).  However, in recent years as educational reform movements have begun to take hold, a genuine debate has broken out within the Jewish community (as in the larger American community) about the balance between protecting the rights of teachers and serving the needs of students.  [I realize that those do not have to be opposites.]  Fractures and fissures of support have burst open.


As a practical issue – for better or for worse – this will likely cease to be an actual issue in the Jewish day school world as there are less than a handful of unionized schools left.  That does not mean that those of us charged with running schools or networks of schools do not have responsibility for supporting, elevating and professionalizing the field.  Union or no union, our schools are only going to be as good as our teachers.

Because as much as this particular debate in our society has to do with the costs of public education, the brush being painted of the teaching profession tars all – public, private, charter, and alternative.

And I think it does real damage.

The truth is that if we ever want to get serious about new forms of education (not reform, but new forms) we will need to hold the teaching profession in high regard.  I don’t know how tearing it down can lead to anything productive.  No one goes into education for the money.  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t well-compensated educators (and by the by, why would there be something wrong with that?), but those whose sole purpose in choosing a profession is making money surely do not choose to be teachers.

Teaching is noble, but not all teachers may be noble.  I am not naive.  There should be accountability in teaching and I don’t pretend to know how to address that in a unionized school.  It is hard enough to do in a private school without unionized teachers.  But I do know that whatever legitimate frustration there is about a lack of accountability ought not delegitimate the entire profession.

I wrote in one my earliest blog posts of my belief that teaching is a sacred profession.

I mean that literally; I believe that teaching is a religious act.

I believe this to be true of all teaching – not the teaching of religious subjects or by religious people – but, that an inner-city math lesson is as much a religious act as is a Rabbinics class in a Jewish day school.  Because so much of teaching is relational (with your students, your parents, your colleagues, etc.) and because in order to relate you must acknowledge the divine in others, I really believe that teaching is in and of itself “religious”.  [You can substitute “spiritual” if it makes you more comfortable.]  I do not think it is an accident that many teachers consider their work a “calling” and not a “career”.

And so on this Labor Day weekend, to the teachers who have been called and the parents who partner with them, I offer words from one of my most favorite books on teaching by Maria Harris:

One of the great sorrows in human life is the discovery, too late, of our own beauty and of the beauty of much that we do. Such is often the case with teachers, as we contemplate ourselves and our vocation. At the deepest level, every teacher wants to become a better teacher, even a great teacher; in moments of insight, every teacher is aware of hidden gifts of creativity and imagination.

But often the pressures, deadlines, and exigencies of dailiness keep teachers from standing back and viewing their work with the care both they and their work deserve. Often when there might be times at faculty meetings or on in-service days, demands for the newest, the latest, and the updated can get in the way and preclude the possibility of standing back, of being still and recalling the excitement and lure which drew us to teaching in the first place.

We need an arena, a context, and an occasion to contemplate our teaching and to recover, if we have lost them, the dreams and the hopes, the vision and the grandeur that lie at the core of teaching. We need an opportunity to rediscover the creative, artistic teachers we are and were meant to be.

I hope teaching in our schools provide just that opportunity.