The Power of Inclusion

This blog post was originally published on SAR's Divine Sparks blog. 

It was the first recess on the first day of school, and Shlomo’s (not his real name) first day at SINAI at SAR Academy. Shlomo was very social, and had many friends, but his academic challenges were complex and he struggled in many parts of his day.  Although they knew that SINAI was the right academic setting for him, Shlomo’s parents were apprehensive that he would not be able cultivate and maintain friendships with the SAR students.

Shlomo went out to recess with all the other children, including SINAI and SAR students, from his grade. As the door opened to the field, the boys called to him, “Yay, Shlomo, come join us!” and they ran off together to play.

This is just one example of what inclusion looks like at SINAI.

Since beginning my work in the world of special education, I had a dream to start a Modern Orthodox day school for children with more complex disabilities. It always broke my heart when parents had to leave SAR for a secular special-education setting. SAR Academy has an outstanding inclusion program; however, there are some children who need even more individualization and support than SAR can offer. SINAI serves families with children who struggle with more complex learning disabilities and/or social challenges, within SAR’s open walls.

Having worked at SAR for eleven years, the culture of openness and inclusiveness is part of my core beliefs. When I heard that SINAI was partnering with SAR, I knew I needed to be a part of it. SINAI and SAR make perfect partners, and we are working together to serve those children who would otherwise fall through the cracks. SINAI and SAR both believe that every child has a unique spark, and both focus on a child’s strengths while working with teachers and families on how to best work given his or her weaknesses. I am pleased that our pilot program draws students from throughout the community, including children who began at SAR and have moved successfully and happily into our SINAI class.

SINAI operates six other schools besides the one here at SAR, and has been around for almost 40 years.  Within SINAI’s mission is the value of an inclusive educational environment within a partner school—in this case, SAR Academy–because of the belief that inclusion within the broader community plays a key role in motivating our students and meeting their educational and social goals.

Inclusion means something different for every child. Parents partner with our administrators and teachers to define their child’s academic goals and consider the myriad of inclusion opportunities within SAR Academy. As they grow and develop their skills, SINAI students are “mainstreamed” into partner school academic classes, after careful planning and supports are in place. Even with our younger children, who still need a great deal of support, the SINAI students participate in the many non-academic activities offered by SAR, including recess, lunch, tefillah, physical education, enrichment clusters, lunch groups, music, art, and sports teams. Every part of SINAI’s ‘Inclusion by Design’ approach is individualized to maximize and develop each child’s strengths.  

That SAR fully embraces the concept of inclusion was evident during a recent “kriah” celebration. Some SINAI students come to us with limited or no Judaic Studies background. This year, two third grade students began to learn how to read Hebrew for the first time. When they finished learning the Aleph Bet, we presented the students with a certificate signed by Rabbi Krauss. Their Principal. The head of the whole school.   Not only did he sign the certificate, but when we brought the children to him, he was just concluding an 8th grade Gemara class—the 8th graders spontaneously began singing “Mazal Tov” and lifted the third graders up on chairs while dancing around them! Not only were the SINAI students proud of their accomplishments, their experience was elevated by being part of SAR.

Inclusion in action means that when SAR is celebrating chagim— Sukkot, Chanukah, Purim– the SINAI students are part of those experiences.  On Sukkot we went with the SAR third graders on a sukkah hop and enjoyed ice cream from the ice cream truck; on Chanukah we joined the silent DJ concert and candle lighting on the steps, and on Purim we participated in the Topsy Turvy Day carnival. Lunch groups have helped develop friendships for some of our students and have led to playdates outside of school. Our class participates in Morah Sarah’s weekly Parsha class and when Morah Beth interviews third graders during lunch, our students are part of the rotation. When the children are asked where they go to school, they’re proud to respond, “SAR!”

On a daily basis I experience how the SAR administration and faculty are proud to be partners with SINAI, and our students are certainly proud to be part of the SAR family.