As the Associate Director of Special Education for the Opening the Doors (OTD) Program, part of Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education in Metropolitan Detroit, I have the privilege of facilitating supplemental programs that enable children with diverse learning, social and behavioral differences and abilities to be included and participate in a meaningful Jewish education.
Our OTD program was designed to ensure that every child in our community with diverse learning differences receives a quality Jewish education at no additional cost to their families. Through OTD, we place Master Special Educators and trained Para Educators in our Jewish day schools and congregational schools and train teen Madrichim (counselors). Each school receives a Federation stipend, OTD supervision, consulting, evaluation and professional development opportunities for their educators and families.
In developing OTD, we learned important lessons about how to make an inclusion program successful.
Be Enthusiastic and Don’t Give Up
Initially, we had a vision for OTD, but there was no precedent in other U.S. communities. Looking back, our enthusiasm, motivation and our inspiring children drove us to succeed. While speaking with the many stakeholders we would be collaborating with, we promoted OTD with excitement and passion. Commitment from key partner schools soon followed. Today, we serve 1,000 children in our community.
That enthusiasm and partnership approach paved the way for easier conversations, when discussing programmatic details. In addition, whenever we had challenges we became solution-oriented and collaboratively made innovative modifications within the program and/or school model, always moving forward.
Relationship Building is Critical
We continue to emphasize the value of fostering trusting, collaborative and respectful relationships with the day school/congregational administrators and teachers we work with. It is important to consider all points of view, needs and concerns whether structural, academic or behavioral. Suggestions are more readily implemented when quality working relationships have been developed and you are supportive and accessible. Our teachers truly care about our children and helping them find success, and many benefit from additional knowledge of learning styles and research-based strategies to increase their effectiveness.
Help Others Be Successful
Creating positive, individualized, interactive learning environments for all children with diverse abilities and talents may be challenging. Share your knowledge and expertise by modeling, offering strategies and extending resources that empower the teachers you’re working with, so they become more competent and effective. Additionally, provide professional training on topics such as: inclusion practices, differentiated instruction, accommodations, disability awareness, and assessments, which provide staff opportunities, strengthen their knowledge and expertise, and relevant techniques to maximize students’ success.
Max, who has Asperger Syndrome, says it best: “I want other children and young adults to have as amazing of an experience as I did.” Developing and sustaining successful inclusion programs will take passion, innovation, collaboration, relationships, engagement, funding and hard work. My hope is that some of my suggestions may help you “open the doors” to a future rich with opportunity, inclusion, Jewish identity, heritage and meaningful learning for all diverse learners.
Ellen Maiseloff, M.A., is the Associate Director of Special Education, Alliance for Jewish Education of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit and a graduate of the First Leadership Institute on Disabilities and Inclusion. Slingshot recently named Opening the Doors as one of 18 leading innovative Jewish programs committed to fostering inclusion of people with disabilities, in their 2013-2014 Disabilities and Inclusion Supplement. Follow OTD on Facebook to learn more.