Sulam partnership expanded

Pilot program will help support those with severe learning disabilities

Mischa Trainor, Editor-in-Chief

After years of turning away students with learning disabilities who require more intense support, CESJDS will now be offering a pilot program to accommodate those students. They will also continue professional development related to supporting students with learning disabilities.

Sulam, housed at the Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy, is an independent Jewish special education school. Three years ago, they began partnering with JDS in running professional development training on Universal Design Learning (UDL) in the Lower School.

In addition to professional development programming, JDS is also working with the Sulam school to launch a three year pilot program at the Lower School for students with more severe learning disabilities who require more support than what is currently available at JDS.

Students participating in this pilot program would be included in the regular classes but would also have special education teachers in the classroom working with them as well as additional resources. There would also be a lead supervisor to oversee the program and look into the structure of lessons and the curriculum.

JDS is hoping to start accepting applications for this program in mid-January for the fall of 2022. They raised additional money for this program, and there will be an added fee in addition to the regular JDS tuition for those in the program.

“I will say we’re really excited about it,” Head of School Rabbi Mitch Malkus said. “I would say that this is long overdue. Most of the students who this will help are students who I think are intellectually capable of doing really rigorous work, but we didn’t have enough support for them.”

With this new training on UDL, the idea that before teachers walk into the classroom, they design their lessons to include all different types of learners, teachers aim to create accessible lessons for all students. However, with standard differentiated instruction, teachers would try to cater to individual students’ needs. 

“So I think it’s the difference between a proactive stance and a reactionary stance,” Malkus said. “Now what we’re doing is before anyone steps in the class, and it doesn’t even have to be an individual student, the teachers are thinking, ‘How do different learners engage in the lesson that I’m doing? How do different learners access the curriculum?’ It’s a subtle but really important difference in what we’re doing.”

Separate from Sulam, a session on supporting students with executive functioning challenges in the classroom took place at the Upper School as part of professional day programming. The middle school and high school faculty participated in this program on Aug. 26 and Nov. 1 respectively, including a panel composed of students with executive functioning challenges.

High school Jewish Text Department Chair Grace McMillan and history teacher Natalie Levitan began planning their presentation over the summer, originally focusing on defining executive functioning and talking about how to help students with executive function issues. They decided to add a student panel to allow teachers to hear directly from students. The panel for high school teachers included four seniors while the panel for middle school teachers included three seniors and two middle schoolers.

“It was, in fact, the most popular part of our presentation,” McMillan said. “At the end of the day, teachers are so attuned to hearing what students are saying and hearing from students. How do we meet your needs best? … [The] student panel really spoke to that for the faculty when we presented it to them.”

Senior Eli Gordon has ADHD and spoke at the panel. He suggested that teachers help students with motivation and check in with students, especially those with learning disabilities, because approaching teachers can sometimes be intimidating for them.

“It’s good to hear from the students because, you know, the teachers think one thing, but hearing it from the students, it’s like the actual people you’re trying to help,” Gordon said. “So I think it’s great.”

Since returning to in-person school full time, learning specialist Brett Kugler has not seen any major differences in the transition for students with learning disabilities as opposed to those who do not have learning disabilities.

“I think it’s an adjustment for everybody going from being out of school for a year. And so I haven’t noticed anything particular with anybody having any issues. I think actually there’s been a pretty smooth adjustment back for everybody,” Kugler said. “It seems like as a school, generally speaking, people seem really excited to be at school, which is a nice change.”

Gordon, on the other hand, has found the transition a little more difficult for him, but he has been able to manage the transition and feels motivated with only a small number of days left for seniors.

“I think it’s a little bit harder because there’s more going on and there’s more people around me to distract myself. So it’s a little bit harder, but you know, we figure it out as we go,” Gordon said.

Some of the biggest takeaways from the student panel were that guided notes are not very helpful for all students, and that many students with executive functioning challenges need help with motivation. 

To continue this project, McMillan and Levitan are planning more presentations about executive functioning for the future. They also hope to look at the curriculum and tweak certain lessons to make them more beneficial for students with executive functioning challenges.

“It was fascinating to see that, certainly in the high school conversation, the teachers would love more [opportunities to hear from students where they are not being graded on anything], where it’s a collaborative conversation with students,” McMillan said. “The overwhelming majority of high school faculty were excited to be having that conversation.”

In addition to teachers being excited for the future of this program, Malkus is hopeful about the future of JDS’s relationship with Sulam, and he has also considered UDL training at the Upper School. Currently, Sulam does professional development programming with other schools but not as extensively as they do at JDS.

“And [UDL] helps all students, so that’s why we like it,” Malkus said. “It raises the bar for everybody. I think what we hope is that this pilot [program] will be successful, and then eventually other [independent Jewish schools] will replicate it.”