Written by Lenore Layman, Director of Educational Support Services, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, firstname.lastname@example.org
The sun was shining brightly on a warm July morning as I spoke on the phone with an administrator from the Jewish Day School in which my own kids attended. She had called me to ask me to consider taking a job at the school as the Director of Educational Support Services. I still remember the combination of emotions that swept over me. Feelings of flattery and challenge enveloped me along with the feelings of excitement about the new opportunities that I might be able to facilitate and ultimately provide to children and families in a leadership position such as this. As a parent in the school and as a special needs professional in the community, I had always felt that the doors to this school could be open wider to students with diverse learning needs. My head and heart were already brimming with ideas and the potential to make a difference. At the same time, it took me several months to decide I was comfortable going forward to pursue this job opportunity, as I tried to understand the reality of what would be involved for parents to truly feel that the doors of the school were pushed open widely enough for their children to come inside.
Six years later as I continue to work to widen our doors, those original feelings of challenge and opportunity are experienced on a daily basis. They are not only felt by me but they are felt by the wonderful and dedicated teachers in our school, by the dynamic team of guidance counselors and learning specialists, by our dedicated and hard working administrative team and they of course are felt in a very significant way by our students and our parents. Six years later, approximately one third of our student population receives some type of support services. Many of our teachers have attended year long professional development trainings in Differentiated Instruction. The level of communication and collaboration about student needs is at a very high level and our partnership with parents and private clinicians is a priority to us. If I stopped for a moment on my roller skates and took a break at the side of the rink, I would have to say that our doors have opened wider and that our higher level of comprehensive support services and infrastructure make a positive difference each and every day in the learning and community experience that we provide to our students. This is the opportunity part!
However, I have to admit that I wake up each morning and go to sleep most nights thinking about the challenge part of this. I imagine that many of our teachers, specialist staff, administrators and parents do too. What are the challenges that I struggle with on a daily basis as the lead administrator in the school that oversees educational support services? Are the services that we are providing to Ari comprehensive enough? Would Sarah be a stronger reader and writer if she received more specialized and frequent language support? Would Sam’s social experience be richer and more supportive if our school was structured to provide social skills training throughout the day as part of our curriculum? Is it ultimately in Hannah’s best interest for us to continue to modify her assignments in writing? Are the students in Mrs. Price’s class being negatively impacted by having Yoel in their classroom because of all the extra time that the teacher has to devote to help him stay focused and organized and to help him regulate his behavior? Are our teachers receiving enough professional development, support and guidance to be as effective as they would like to be with the range of learners in their classrooms?
And what wakes me up in the middle of the night or tears me apart on the weekend when I should be taking a much needed break with my family? The meeting that I just had with Mr. and Mrs. Small where I had to tell them that our services are not comprehensive enough to continue to meet their child’s needs and that they need to start exploring other schools for next year. The meeting last week with prospective parents who are so committed to a Jewish day school education where I had to explain that we cannot accept their child at this time because as much as would like to, our doors aren’t open wide enough and we cannot promise them services that we don’t have. The meeting with a team of teachers who have given their all to a child and his parents but come to me because they feel that their support is not enough and that the child needs so much more than they can provide. My own observations of a student who is acting out in his classes on a daily basis despite a significant amount of interventions because I know deep down our services are truly not a match for what he needs.
Six years later, our doors are open wider. The sun shines in on most days. The commitment to work harder, think more creatively, and to reach higher and higher to overcome our challenges is an integral part of who we are as a team. We are committed to making a difference in the lives of students and families by supporting the needs of the students in our school and to strategically plan ways we can open our doors even wider to students who are not currently here. Our philosophical commitment continues to strengthen and propel us forward though some might only define our progress as baby steps. At times we do have to step backward or stay in one place longer than we might like as we struggle to define and redefine the range of diverse learning needs that we believe we can be successful with and to reexamine our financial and professional resources and how creatively we can stretch them. Our commitment is a strong one but our challenge is great. I think creatively each day in the shower and in the car about ways to better support students, teachers and parents. But I still haven’t slept through the night in a very long time.