My child is falling behind in school. Where do I turn? The resource room does not seem to be enough for my youngster. My family needs direction.
SINAI Schools is one of Queens’ hidden gems, filling an ever-present need for special education, especially for children with complex difficulties. For over 40 years, SINAI has been hard at work brightening the days of Jewish children who had struggled academically in mainstream yeshivos or required a tailored educational opportunity due to complex learning and developmental disabilities. In New York City, the demand for such education is real, and the need progressively increases, keeping the SINAI administration busy over the past year and a half in their newest division, locally housed within the confines of the Yeshiva of Central Queens. Their impact has been tremendous amongst the Modern Orthodox, Chofetz Chaim, and Bukharian communities, amongst others.
“As communities became more sophisticated in understanding what it means to provide an education for a child with special needs, SINAI sought further growth,” expressed Rabbi Yisrael Rothwachs, SINAI’s Dean. “We serve a wide spectrum of children ranging from those with developmental disabilities to those with a variety of complex learning disabilities, and those diagnosed with autism and Down syndrome.”
“We came to YCQ at the request of the community,” explained Arielle Greenbaum Saposh, Associate Managing Director at SINAI, “The demand has surpassed our expectations. In our first year, the enrollment was higher than we expected, and we continued to grow thereafter.” SINAI’s decades of experience have led to a current operation in four elementary schools and four high schools with a roster of over 200 students spread throughout its partner institutions. Since its inception, children, as well as adults through the age of 21 with a variety of challenges, traveled from the five boroughs to its New Jersey locations. The addition of YCQ as a partner was a gamechanger for families of first through eighth graders in and around Queens.
“Partnering with SINAI benefits the entire YCQ community,” related Rabbi Mark Landsman, Principal of the Yeshiva. “The YCQ students have quickly learned to be more understanding of those with differences, and not to judge people by appearances. Our educational staff has benefited from having SINAI in our midst as a resource.” YCQ educators often suggest to SINAI administrators when their student body might benefit from SINAI students joining in a chagigah or unique program.
SINAI’s involvement at YCQ now allows for current YCQ parents of children with special needs to remain in their Yeshiva community and have all their children be educated on the same campus along with their friends and neighbors avoiding the need for extensive travel. “We are able to keep siblings together in the YCQ family, even when one of them has learning differences,” pointed out Rabbi Landsman. “It gives me tremendous pleasure to have all of our students under one inclusive roof here at YCQ.” This statement is fortified by the fact that students of SINAI take pride in saying that they go to YCQ, showcasing the extent of the integration and partnership.
“SINAI shines by offering a highly individualized program where each child’s trials are targeted on a personal level, combined with intense instruction and necessary therapies,” noted Rabbi Rothwachs. “The children participate in a multigrade classroom setting with six to eight students and three master-level teachers that remain with the children throughout the day in the same setting. At SINAI@YCQ, we successfully conduct five such classrooms.”
“The whole team – therapists, teachers, administration – there’s such real genuine dedication and concern, and [my child] feels it, too,” recounted a SINAI parent. SINAI, as the sole Jewish special education school accredited by the celebrated Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, brings an assortment of collaborative therapies to its students from occupational, speech, physical, psychological, and art – to name a few.
“He’s so happy in school; he’s a completely different child!” relayed another parent to Gittie Rothschild, Director of SINAI elementary at YCQ. Such comments give meaning to the efforts underway.
This past September, SINAI encountered a young girl who struggled with reading and was left baffled by anything to do with words, letters, and language. “This child avoided even a sign on a door or something that you may come across in your daily life, because she was frustrated by her inability to read,” described Mrs. Rothschild. “Now, just a mere few months later, with the incredible teachers she has worked with, her attitude towards reading has changed.” Children are awarded certificates as they achieve milestones and often ask their teachers to sign their accolade. “This young girl with a beaming smile burst into our office clutching her certificate with a Sharpie in hand for us to sign her award. It is a beauty to see a child who once avoided reading to now be engaged, enthusiastic, excited, and happy.”
“It feels like magic seeing this boy talking to his classmates, answering questions in class, and raising his hand to volunteer to speak up,” proudly illustrated Mrs. Rothschild as she took me on the journey of a more dramatic case in point that SINAI took on this year, involving a boy who struggles with selective mutism, a rare severe anxiety disorder where the child in this case speaks at home, but not in school. Coming with past expertise in this field, SINAI launched a collaborative effort and steered its staff with strategies while offering a selective, specific environment and daily schedule that slowly gave educators knowledge on his academic standing, allowing for the opportunity to finally address his deep-seated struggles.
The decision to accept this young boy included a deliberate preparational process where the child first came in with his dad to tour the classroom by themselves. Together, they were able to discuss how a day may transpire. Next, one of the instructors joined and slowly fostered a non-verbal connection that set the precedent for the journey ahead.
For mainstream youth, recess is often a time to relax and enjoy free play or a sporting game. A child with special needs often necessitates a structured, supervised environment where a recess activity is thought out prior. To this end, Mrs. Rothschild and I discussed a girl who registered on the autism scale and grappled with the small group setting offered at SINAI. “When you spoke with her, she would respond with lines from a script,” expressed the seasoned instructor as she depicted the struggles of a young girl absorbed in the fantasy world of film. During recess, instead of interacting with peers, she would be in her own world wandering about replaying the tunes that consume her mind. Today, the mutual undertaking of SINAI educators has taught the child how to think about and relate to the people around her. “The trajectory of this young girl’s life has totally changed as she is now aware of others and notices if someone is absent or greets someone who enters the classroom by name.”
The involvement of parents plays a vital role in the development of a special needs child. SINAI educators collaborate with the parents, discussing their child frequently during the year. While a typical parent-teacher conference may take just a few minutes, at SINAI, 40 minutes is dedicated to each set of parents to meet with the entire team that aids in the daily routine. In a heartwarming sense of gratitude, one parent relayed, “I’m all emotional, because we see a huge difference in her from last year to this year, and it’s because of SINAI.”
An older boy with sensory issues joined SINAI unable to manage davening in shul and struggled overall with the Hebrew dialect and the nuances of participating in a minyan. “From knowing when to bow, and how to interact with the people around him, this boy now had to contend with donning t’filin, which due to his sensory sensitivities and OT needs was very challenging for him,” expounded Mrs. Rothschild. “We began with coaching on understanding t’filah and navigating the beis midrash to eventually seeing him blend in with the YCQ students wearing his t’filin and being part of the community.”
“Imagine a child who has bounced from school to school and has not found any academic success and is now starting to feel depressed or socially awkward,” concluded Rabbi Rothwachs. “After spending time at SINAI, parents react, ‘Our house is different because my child is finally happy to go to school!’ or ‘My son told me that he is in a place where people understand me.’”
SINAI regularly hears feedback of “I can!” – expressing how students have overcome hurdles, and how SINAI’s attentively designed activities for each child’s day have helped them maximize inclusion within their partner school community. A SINAI student gains confidence to be able to partake in Jewish customs at home and be part of society.
“Parents and grandparents often relate on an experience with SINAI that their child now can be part of the Jewish community with all of their strengths and weaknesses,” stated Mrs. Greenbaum Saposh.
SINAI excels in recognizing the gifts and challenges of their students and slowly assists them in comingling with mainstream school children on bus rides, in the cafeteria, at recess, and at partner school functions.
SINAI’s longevity is due to community support; it’s no secret that such an education is costly. The cost to SINAI to provide the individualized program and therapies each child needs is staggering, but the school is committed to making sure price does not become a factor for the children who need them. This only works thanks to the support of the community; SINAI has been blessed to find communal partners who value the need to house such an institution in their midst and grasp that it is paramount to future successes.
Much appreciation is due to the efforts of Abigail Hepner Gross, Director of Communications for SINAI, in bringing the amazing work of SINAI to our readership. Learn more about SINAI at www.sinaischools.org.
By Shabsie Saphirstein