No School Is Right for All Needs
EducationMeeting Special Needs

No School Is Right for All Needs

Atlanta Jewish Academy offers an innovative program for special needs.

“Educate the children according to their path.” — Proverbs Mishlei 22:6

At Atlanta Jewish Academy, we believe that every Jewish child is entitled to an education that fosters a love of the Jewish people, our community, Torah and Israel. We also recognize that every child connects, learns and processes information in a different way. We are proud to offer our Matthew Blumenthal M’silot Program, which allows our students to follow the path that will best lead to their success.

We decided 16 years ago to support a program that was unique in the community and could offer families a chance to have their children’s needs met in a Jewish setting, and we continue to enthusiastically support this program.

The M’silot Program serves students throughout the Atlanta area, from a wide variety of communities and families from other day schools, and meets the most diverse students’ needs in Atlanta. We are proud that is still true.

As with any specialized program, we recognize that we cannot meet the needs of all students with special needs. A program for students with special needs requires specific resources, staff, space and intentionality to ensure that it is appropriate and meets the needs of the target audience.

No one school can provide a program for the many different special needs children in our community. It is just not financially and programmatically possible, nor is it in the best interest of many children, who may not get their specific needs met.

We pride ourselves on being inclusive; however, when we realize that another program may be a better fit for a child, we are honest with the family. The child and his/her needs are the top priority. We will also help the family find the best setting. It’s all about the children.

There are some other challenges of conducting a program for special needs in a Jewish day school. We offer an excellent opportunity for students who learn differently to be included in our school, but some families do not select a program in a Jewish day school and instead choose secular specialty schools.

In addition, some families want to stay in the Jewish setting and school they are most comfortable with religiously, even if the child’s needs will be met more appropriately in another program. Therefore, many Jewish day schools are offering programs for students with similar disabilities at varying degrees.

The cost to parents is also a huge factor. Because these programs are expensive, many families cannot afford to take advantage even with tuition assistance. We have introduced our flexible tuition program to help with this obstacle for parents.

We are proud that at AJA we have been at the forefront in offering a program for children with specific learning differences. The Matthew Blumenthal M’silot Program has offered many entry points for students’ Jewish journeys at AJA and is a crucial component of our religious mission at our school.

To offer a quality and specialized education to all Jewish children is a mitzvah, and M’silot delivers on this mitzvah every single day. Thank you to the teachers who help make this program a reality and who guide the M’silot students on their own specific paths.

Diane Marks is the director of AJA’s Matthew Blumenthal M’silot Program.

Editor’s note: To complement Anne Kelman Denneen’s column, the Atlanta Jewish Times invited several Atlanta Jewish day schools serving elementary school children to submit columns about the issues involved with special needs. The schools were not given an advance look at Denneen’s column or told which institution her family was involved with. Because of the timing of the AJT’s request, only Atlanta Jewish Academy was able to submit a response; we are hopeful of receiving additional responses addressing the concerns raised by these articles in future issues of the AJT.

Matthew Blumenthal M’silot Program

Matthew Blumenthal was a student with muscular dystrophy at Greenfield Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva Atlanta (which later merged to form AJA) from first grade through graduation. After he died at 24, his grandparents, Saul and Adele Blumenthal, donated the seed money to start the M’silot Program in his memory in 1999.

With their sustaining gift, Matthew’s parents, Elaine and Jerry Blumenthal, are continuing this vital work. Over 200 students have come through this program and moved on to be successful young adults and valuable community members.

Early intervention is the key to success for children with special needs. At AJA, we strongly encourage students to receive intervention as early as possible. We have found that students who participate in our Running Start kindergarten program and lower-school M’silot Program in first and second grades are most likely to develop the skills, confidence and executive functioning skills to succeed in a traditional classroom at an early entry point.

In our intensive, self-contained setting, students receive direct instruction from Orton Gillingham-trained teachers in a 6-to-1 student-teacher ratio. A speech language pathologist is an integral part of our program.

One of the most important aspects of our program is that we focus on teaching students how they learn best. Students who “learn how they learn” are confident and can reach their potential throughout their schooling.

Students in our program interact with their grade-level peers much of the day and participate with them in co-curricular activities and social times. Many M’silot students take classes in the mainstream in their areas of strength.

Our students receive Judaic and Hebrew instruction in a small group setting with many of the same strategies used in general studies. Students learn to read and write in Hebrew and receive Judaic instruction in parallel to their mainstream peers.

Our goal is to help students develop the skills and strategies to succeed in the mainstream classroom. When our students advance to middle school, they are included in mainstream classes.

We are transitioning at AJA to a model that provides two teachers in a middle school classroom, one a special education teacher and one a content specialist, so that all our students can succeed. Students also are provided a support period each day to help reteach, organize and learn strategies to reach their potential.

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