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October 19, 2018     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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October 19, 2018

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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, OCTOBER 19, 2018 PAGE 7A @ Shefa classes have a high teacher-student ratio. Ben Sales By Ben Sales in Manhattan specifically for academic year, Shamah was kids with learning disabili- reading and writing at grade NEW YORK (JTA)--Go- ties, and would be entering level. ing to high school for the a mainstream Jewish school, "In Shefa, they really in- first time last month, Linda the Yeshivah of Flatbush in dividualize every kid," the Shamah felt like many other Brooklyn. 14-year-old Brooklynite said. incoming freshmen: really Shamah had entered Shefa "They do what they think is nervous and really excited, at the beginning of seventh best for you In high school The large lecture-style grade; she was two years be- it's a lecture. The teacher is classes seemed daunting, hindgradelevelinreadingand standing in the front of class, She'dbe gettingless personal writing. Shefa, which serves you're taking notes, if you attention from teachers. At Jewish kids with language- havequestions,youaskthem, the same time, she was look- based learning disabilities, but the teacher doesn't really ing forward to trying out for afforded her an environment know what kind of learner volleyball and participating that provided personal at- you are." in a program at the Fashion tention tailored to the areas Still, a few weeks into high Institute of Technology. in which she needed theschool, Shamah sounded like But for Shamah, the shift most help. In one instance, a she was getting along. from middle school to high teacher bought her "Fish in "I was very anxious," she school came along with an a Tree," a young adult novel, said, "but at the same time added transition: She had just because it seemed like it I was very excited for a new graduated from the Shefa would appeal to her. school, to see what it could School, a Jewish day school By time she graduated last do for me and how it could help me in ways Shefa couldn't provide." Shamah was one of the 11 students who made up Shefa's first eighth-grade graduating class in the spring. Now those students are mostly integrat- ing into mainstream Jewish day schools. In a way, it's a test of Shefa, which was founded in 2014 to educate Jewish children who struggle with things like read- ing comprehension, writing or decoding a math problem. The school's environment gave them the space and at- tention to catch up, allowing them to move on to standard Jewish high schools. But would those schools want them? Would they make it? So far, Shefa administra- tors say, the answer to both questions appears to be yes. The kids have been accepted into well-regarded Jewish schools and seem to be doing fine since the term started in early September. "Last year was a big mo- ment of truth in some ways," said Ilana Ruskay-Kidd, She- fa's head of school. "Last year at this time we didn't know how schools were going to re- act. Itwas meaningful to us to see that they in fact saw these kids as extremely attractive applicants, and our record of getting kids into schools was exceedingly high." Shefa began with 24 stu- dents and now has 143, from varied Jewish backgrounds, in first through eighth grade. It looks like any grammar school: walls with bulletin boards and brightly colored decorations, rows of lockers, kids swarming the hallways between classes. The difference is the focus on personal attention for the children. Teachers aid them with decoding English words, or writing a coherent para- graph, by setting aside extra time during the school day, or they make use of auditory or visual tools when the student has trouble learning from books. The school has a high teacher-student ratio---a class with 14 students, for example, has two teachers. "The beauty of bringing in a school for children like this is we can group children with similar skills together," said Roberta Solar, SheWs head of middle school and outplace- ment. "We're not mixing students who are learning to decode with students who are learning to comprehend and unpack the reading." That focus, for example, also means that learning to read Hebrew starts in fourth or fifth grade rather than a few years earlier, like in other Jewish schools. So to prepare students for Jewish high schools, where many students enter with proficiency in He- brew and Jewish texts, Shefa focused on making sure its graduates had the tools to be able to study Bible or analyze a passage of rabbinic text. "We're certainly not go- ing to say we're not going to teach you about the American Revolution or about [Deuter- onomy] because you can't open up the text and just fluently read it," Ruskay-Kidd said. "We're going to try to figure out ways so that they can learn that high-level material in science, in social studies, in Judaic studies, to play to their intellectual level, their thinking level." The transition process to high school began in seventh grade. Each student and their family metwith school faculty to look at their options and what would be the best fit. Students were then coached through the high-school ap- plication process, which can be arduous in New York: how to write an essay, how to give an interview, how to succeed on placement tests. Some high schools sent observers to Shefa. In class, teachers made sure the students could tackle the same material as other graduating eighth-graders. Marc Goldsmith, an eighth- grade language arts teacher, had his kids read challenging books--Shakespeare, for example--and write research papers on the Warsaw Ghetto. "They were eager," Gold- smith said. "They wanted to tackle it. They had the skills from reading lower-level books--characterization and Shefa on page 15A