One indicator of the success of a society is how they treat their most vulnerable members. In the greater Five Towns, there are many examples of the success and uniqueness of the community. A defining example can be found in the commitment to the special education students of the Lawrence school district.
The Lawrence Union Free School District, also known as District 15, covers Lawrence, Cedarhurst, Inwood, Atlantic Beach, and parts of Woodmere. This district serves a diverse demographic that includes different cultural and educational needs, which can best be described as a “cultural mosaic.”
Under the leadership of Superintendent Gary Schall, District 15 has strengthened its efforts to provide special needs children with the finest and most comprehensive education available. From the remarkable level of services and resources, to the emphasis on arts, music, and afterschool enrichment, the programs at the Lawrence public schools rival those at top private special education schools, yeshivas, and other public school districts.
“We have the resources to provide services beyond compare, which are difficult for a private school to offer. Our staff has a high level of certification that is above the requirements,” says Schall.
As community awareness increases regarding the high level of quality services and programs available here, more Orthodox Jewish parents are turning to the district for help in educating their special needs children. While there are some yeshivas and other private schools that offer special education services, the high tuition and long bus rides can create other hardships for those families. Many parents are making the choice to keep their children in the Lawrence public schools. Rabbis, educators, and community leaders are currently amongst the parents who have returned to District 15.
While it is a difficult decision to bypass educating a child according to the family’s beliefs, the parents come to realize it is the best chance for their child to succeed. With the knowledge that there are services available so close to home, the decision comes down to doing what is best for each individual child. These families have been able to work out a balance and educate their children in accordance with their personal values. Many receive religious instruction on the weekends while having their educational needs met at the district level.
Schall is sensitive to these challenges and attuned to the cultural nuances. His goal is to make everyone feel at home in their home district. Working over the years with the support of the school board, the PTA, local rabbis, and other representatives from across the spectrum of the Lawrence district community, Schall has concentrated his efforts into making it happen. At the same time Superintendent Schall is always careful to stay within the legal limits of the public schools, focusing on cultural aspects rather than religious. “What can’t be done by scripture can be done by action,” says Schall.
One of the most significant developments this past year was the launch of the Hebrew Culture club. The afterschool program, offered for the first through fourth grades at the Number Five School, was led by Shira Hefter, a special education teacher and parent of a special ed student. The program was open to all students regardless of religious background and participants included children who were autistic and those at grade level. Every Wednesday, for one hour, Hefter taught the eager group about the Jewish holidays and brought in traditional foods like challah and grape juice to enhance the lessons. She also read related books and did relevant activities. Close to 20 children participated.
While Hefter’s other children attend Orthodox yeshivas, one son is a third-grader at the Number Five School. Though born premature he is now “doing fabulous.” Hefter is an advocate for utilizing the Lawrence public schools. “The teachers are all so well trained to help give each child what they need,” she says.
In the upcoming year, Schall plans to provide four days of afterschool programs, including English and math enrichment and various cultural clubs. There will be Spanish Culture and Italian Culture clubs in addition to the expanded Hebrew Culture club. This recognition of the diverse cultural needs of the community illustrates Schall’s fervent commitment to serve all of the children in the best way possible.
Rabbi Yaakov Reisman, the leader of the Agudath Israel of Long Island synagogue, had four sons who went through the Lawrence Public Schools. Rabbi Reisman recalls that “they had the best teachers that we could have imagined when my boys were there.” The teachers were extremely devoted to helping them thrive educationally and sensitive to the boys’ cultural needs as well. “We felt comfortable and they felt comfortable,” he says.
He has much gratitude for Superintendent Schall and thinks the world of him and his teachers. “I have found that that anyone who makes a career out of devoting themselves to special education is a good person.”
The remarkable attitude of Schall and his team of dedicated professionals goes way beyond the embracing of cultural differences. The principals and teachers of District 15 are willing and equipped to tackle many extreme and complex cases head on. “Every child in the district belongs to us,” says Schall.
The welcoming of Oliver Miller this past year exemplifies that commitment. Oliver’s parents are both natives of the district. His mother Missy was a graduate of Lawrence High School, and his older sister Katy graduated in 2012. Katy took honors and AP classes, was active in singing, theater, and the fine arts. She enjoyed the full range of extracurricular opportunities in District 15 and received a well-rounded education in a diverse environment. Oliver, however, was not able to start out in the Lawrence public schools.
Suffering a stroke in utero, Oliver is blind and has multiple disabilities, physical and cognitive. From the age of three until age twelve he was bused to a private special education school outside the district. The next place for Oliver was a school that required an hour-long trip. Although the program could meet his needs, his seizures often precluded him from attempting the long bus ride.
Understanding that the prospect of busing a more vulnerable child out of the neighborhood can be traumatic for both the child and the family, Schall had asked Missy Miller throughout the years if she would ever consider keeping Oliver in the district. Miller felt Oliver’s physical needs were too severe for the existing life skills classes at Lawrence High School, which are vocationally centered and geared toward high functioning students. In addition to having developmental disabilities, Oliver’s degree of dependence is higher, being considered “medically fragile.”
Yearning for the possibility of keeping Oliver closer to home, Miller reached out to the Schall to determine if Oliver’s needs could be met at the local level. Upon visiting the Lawrence public schools, she observed that each one of the students in the life skills classes was being taught at his or her own level, and realized that it could indeed be the place for Oliver. Schall and his team immediately got to work on accommodating Oliver’s physical needs, providing the necessary equipment and additional therapies.
Once the accommodations were in order, Oliver was able to thrive. Miller now sees Lawrence High School as a better fit than his previous school. His teacher Dianne Ronan, described by her peers as “a trailblazer,” is dedicated to his success. Everyone involved with Oliver has embraced him and risen to the challenge of piloting this kind of program. “If they can meet his needs, they can meet anyone’s needs,” says Miller.
Having Oliver a mere six minutes from home has boosted his attendance and consistency of his education. It has also minimized the fears that go along with busing a special needs child. Miller says she is “thrilled. This was the best decision for Oliver. Gary Schall has a passionate vision for everyone.”
The mainstream students have embraced Oliver as well, greeting Oliver warmly as he goes through the hallway with his nurse. “He has blossomed. It’s a tremendous difference.” Oliver has made progress in every aspect, despite additional health issues.
The level of dedication and compassion that begins at the Lawrence District lower schools remains constant throughout. The life skills teachers at Lawrence High School have dedicated their lives to helping all of their students succeed. The program serves intellectually impaired children from the age of 13 until 21, with the goal of bringing them to adulthood with the highest level of skill and independence possible. Along with psychologist Elizabeth Wechsler, the team includes Ms. Ronan and Isaac Mayo, who works with the older group. The students receive academic instruction in the morning and vocational training in the afternoon.
In conjunction with trained career and educational coaches from South Oak Hospital, the Lawrence High School teachers also help place the older students in work environments that they can thrive in. Students have successfully participated in supported internships at community stores like Bagel Boss, Trader Joe’s, and Stop & Shop, alongside professional job coaches.
Some of the life skills students find purpose and gain experience within the school environment. They have reestablished the school general store. They sell small items and food and have learned to make change, stock the shelves, and interact with the mainstream high school students. Having the life skills programs at the high school has led to a mutually beneficial experience. Students enjoy visiting the life skills classrooms and some eventually pursue careers in special education.
Educational inclusion has another value. It helps teach cultural tolerance and can bring the community even closer together. A recent interaction at the Number Four School, which houses the district’s early childhood learning center, exemplifies how all of these various elements come together on a regular basis at the Lawrence public schools.
The Lawrence Middle School Percussion Ensemble, a group of special education students, came to entertain the pre-K and kindergarten students. The six band members, ages 10—13, come from diverse ethnic backgrounds. After the performance, the musicians were ready for a treat from Principal Dr. Ann Pedersen. One student insisted on personally checking all of the snacks for kosher certification for his Jewish bandmate. He ran through all the possible kosher symbols so he could be sure that his friend would have a snack before he took his own. The cultural sensitivities that are developed at the Lawrence School District are evident in daily interactions like this.
The ability to have access to unparalleled services and resources so close to home is vital to the success of special needs children. The success of Lawrence school district’s special education program is a shining example of a school district’s ability to serve the children who need the most attention, each in their own individual way. The commitment to bridging cultural and educational gaps in a community as diverse as the Lawrence school district is not only a blessing for its own residents but now also serves as a model for other communities, and society at large. v