Leticia Roffe, 10, is all smiles in her 4th-grade classroom, answering questions from her teacher, Erica Stein, together with her classmates, about the elements of a graphic novel.
Leticia is so involved in the discussion, it’s hard to notice the cheery instructional assistant poised to help prompt her, just in case. But no need. It’s March 2023, seven months into a new program at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School called Sulam@JDS. That the instructional assistant is perched with students, and that Leticia can answer on her own demonstrates the results of the program.
Started by a group of mothers who were determined to provide both a Jewish and secular education for their children, who had a range of disabilities, Sulam is a special education inclusion program that provides educational, social and emotional support for students with disabilities.
Sulam means “ladder” in Hebrew and the choice of the name reflects the step-by-step approach that Sulam began with and continues,” says Lianne Heller, Sulam’s executive director.
Sulam opened its doors in 1998, at the Torah School of Greater Washington. Sulam ultimately consolidated its programs at Berman Hebrew Academy where it serves students from kindergarten through 12th grade.
The choice of CESJDS as the next partner school was intentional and planned. “We have long wanted to create a Sulam program at a pluralistic school,” said Heller. “We have a wonderful partnership with the school community and in particular Rabbi Mitch Malkus, the head of school at CESJDS.”
The program, which this year includes five students with plans for growth during a three-year pilot, has been years in the planning, both for its intricacy and funding. The cost of the pilot program, which both Sulam and CESJDS hope to extend, is close to $800,000, almost exclusively for staff. The lead donor is the Mayberg Foundation, which has a years-long mission of creatively and progressively expanding Jewish education.
(Mayberg Foundation trustee Louis Mayberg is a member of the owners group of Mid-Atlantic Media, publisher of Washington Jewish Week.)
The program boasts a strong staff-to-student ratio, says Heller. The program’s staff at CESJDS, in addition to Heller who is a frequent presence, includes a director of special education, a program director, a reading specialist, a speech language pathologist, a social worker and two instructional assistants who work with students in both Judaics and general studies.
The students in the program include those with language-based learning disabilities, autism and ADHD. Those challenges can sometimes make the school day overwhelming. The biggest surprise for CESJDS teachers has been the impact of the Sulam@JDS program.
Hebrew teacher Moran Assaf-Blutstein and general studies teacher Michal Freidman say they’ve both reached out to the program’s staff for help with students not in the program but who have benefitted from tailored learning strategies the experts were delighted to share.
And all staff are a WhatsApp text away from teachers who can reach out if they think a Sulam@JDS student needs some extra classroom help or emotional support.
Leticia’s mother, Miriam Weiss, becomes emotional when speaking about the current school year. Leticia started at CESJDS last year but was challenged by a diagnosis of ADHD and a math learning disorder. “CESJDS has a learning specialist team of 14 but some students need more support to meet their learning goals and providing learning opportunities for them in a Jewish environment became our mission and is now our success,” says Malkus.
In the classroom, instructional assistants sit near Sulam@JDS students during parts of the day and quietly help them during classroom instruction, when needed. But during small group work and breaks, the assistants are just as likely to be helping any student in the classroom, so it doesn’t feel like she’s being singled out, says Leticia’s mom.
“This school year is so much better than last year,” she says. “Leticia’s confidence has grown as a student. Last year Leticia had a hard year completing assignments and got frustrated easily. This year, through Sulam@JDS, she has learned so many tools to help her better manage her workload.”
Those tools include Sulam@JDS staff encouraging students to advocate for themselves with teachers and other staff members. Just as important, says Weiss, Leticia is social throughout the day with no negative impact on school friendships because she’s in the program.
“The school doesn’t see her as someone who has challenges, but as someone who has abilities to be supported. This year she says she loves math.”
If any learning issues come up, Sulam@JDS team members provide a solution, says Weiss, who adds that it was an important goal of their family to have Leticia attend a Jewish school.
“That’s precisely the goal,” says Malkus. “To include children in our Jewish day school who require additional support because of their learning differences.”
Before students began the program last fall, CESJDS teachers participated, over three years, in professional development training to prepare for the new program. The goal of that training, explains Debra Drang, Sulam’s director of special education, is to use a variety of teaching methods to remove barriers to learning. “It’s about building flexibility that can be adjusted for every student’s strengths and needs.”
“Sulam@JDS is going so beautifully,” says Laura Hardy, a social worker who has been with Sulam for 20 years. “We’re putting extra support into the classroom, pulling students out of the classrooms when necessary, and giving social and emotional support. We are supporting CESJDS teachers when they come to us — which they are doing more and more, which is just exactly what you want when you’re an inclusion program — and we are feeling very supported by CESJDS.”
Tuition for the Sulam@JDS is $15,000 above the regular CESJDS tuition.
Malkus and Heller see the program as helping all community children find their place in Jewish education.
“We’re not such a large community that we can ignore anyone when it comes to a Jewish education,” says Malkus. ■