As the temperature drops and the trees lose their leaves, as kitchens warm with smells of pumpkin and cinnamon, something special happens. All of our lives are put on hold as we push “pause” and take time to celebrate gratitude. As Thanksgiving approaches and we prepare for car rides, in-laws, parades, and a long weekend, I hope we are each able to dig deep and find what we are thankful for. Certainly, despite obvious strife and shortcomings within and around us, we can each find much to be grateful for.
When looking out at our community, our school, our JCC, I feel I could fill a whole volume on this topic. Given that I know most of you are reading this on your phone, and our time together is limited (make sure to take the turkey out of the oven!), I will focus on one aspect of our community that I think truly sets us apart.
I am thankful that our school is an inclusive school. An inclusive school is one that embraces, nurtures, and supports a wide range of children. This includes children with special needs, developmental differences, and behavioral difficulties. I am grateful because I believe that our community is enriched by the differences present within it.
I am thankful that our teachers welcome our children with special needs with open arms and hugs every morning. Our teachers shower our children with love, all of our children, because that is what we believe all children need. Our teachers view it as their duty to approach each child, and each of their differences, with individualized support systems. I am grateful for the skill, deftness, commitment, and experience which each of our teachers brings to this awesome responsibility.
I am thankful that our school is inspired both by Reggio Emilia, where children with needs are referred to as “children with special rights,” and the Jewish concept of B’tzelem Elohim, in which each individual is made in the image of God. The spark of Godliness that we each hold within us demands that every individual be treated with the utmost respect and adoration (no easy task!). The rights that children hold are not determined by how well they fit into a mold, but are inherent in the simple fact that they are here, that they exist. I am grateful that our community holds closely the values present in both Jewish tradition and the Reggio approach to schools, and sees children as innately imbued with the right to participate, grow, and play in his or her community.
I am thankful for the learning and growth opportunities presented to our “typically developing” children by virtue of the fact that they learn and live alongside peers with differences and special needs. The list of developmental benefits for children who learn in an inclusive setting is lengthy and can only be hinted at here; a brief overview would include cognitive flexibility, empathy, respect for differences, understanding of multiple pathways to knowledge, patience, tolerance, moments of teaching and learning, and friendship. If that’s not a list of what I would want for my own child, I’m not sure what is! I am grateful that my own son has the chance to grow up in this inclusive community of learners.
I am thankful for our 300+ parents who embrace our identity as an inclusive community and welcome children with differences to their birthday parties, living rooms, and playdates. Parenting one child is hard enough; parenting a child alongside peers with differences doesn’t provide any shortcuts. Parenting in an inclusive community means you may wonder why certain children always sit on laps or chairs during meetings while your child sits on the rug; you may hear from a teacher, “Your daughter was bit on the shoulder by a classmate, we are working with the classmate on regulating her emotions”; you may never quite know who “that” non-teacher adult is who spends an awful lot of time in the classroom (some of our students have SEITs, Special Education Itinerant Teachers). You may also watch your child act as mentor and support for his classmate; hear your child say, “I learned how to be a helper for Shoshana today”; and realize your daughter went out of her way to include a quiet friend who never makes it into the “family” in the doll corner. I am grateful that our parents exhibit the tolerance and respect needed for building an inclusive community.
I am thankful that our support staff, namely Emily Andrews (Learning Specialist) and Jean Schrieber (Parent Support and Educational Coordinator) provide expert perspectives to our families and teachers on how to navigate the uneven topography of life with a child who has special needs. Their presence and voice allows our community to embrace children with differences and surround them with high quality supports. This model of inclusivity was paved by my predecessor Ilana Ruskay-Kidd in her role as director, and I am humbled knowing that she left this post to further that vision by creating Shefa, the first Jewish day school in New York dedicated to children with learning differences. None of that vision is possible without the excellent administrators who helped build, and continue to shape, our inclusive community. I am grateful for the path of our past and present school leaders and their dedication to this vision of inclusivity.
I am thankful that each of our 173 students, and their 173 different developmental profiles and special rights, have found a community to call “school.” I am grateful for the joy and beauty they bring with them to the JCC every day.