Day school teaches Hebrew, Torah to learning disabled

Sitting behind her teacher's desk, Aviva Lopin helps a 10-year-old student with her Hebrew skills. Directly across from them, at the back of the room, a teacher's aide looks on as a student completes his assignment. Elsewhere in the classroom, students, more often restless than not, tackle their worksheets on their own.

Noise punctuates the atmosphere on this particular day; occasionally, a student will express frustration, to which Lopin responds with a gentle "Do you want to ask me your she'elah ?" Other students will work for 10 minutes and then, fidgeting in their seats, will talk to their neighbor, only to be quieted by the teacher or her aides.

A few minutes before noon, the kids put away their work and get ready for lunch; some of them will eat in the room, others will join the rest of the school in the cafeteria.

Welcome to the Ptach classroom.

Yet the word classroom is a misnomer. An acronym for Parents for Torah Education for all Children and the Hebrew word for "open," Ptach creates an academic and social environment where Jewish children with learning disabilities can function.

Nearly 20 students — all of whom have learning difficulties, some with emotional components — are enrolled in the program. Housed in a wing of the Arie Crown Hebrew Day School in Skokie, Ill., Ptach comprises two classrooms divided by age: grades one through four and five through eight.

Learning-disabled children usually cannot keep up with the pace in a regular classroom. They may have trouble finishing assignments, comprehending the subject matter or following the teaching methodology.

They also may suffer from slower motor skills, which impairs their ability to perform in the classroom. When undiagnosed, their behavior is often dismissed as laziness by parents, teachers, and peers. According to studies, 10 percent of any ethnic population has a learning disability, but many within that group remain undiagnosed.

Says Susan Feuer, director of Ptach, "These are the children who struggle all through school and somehow fall through the cracks."

Intelligence is not the issue, she stresses. "We tend to think they are slow learners, but that's not the case. They just learn in a different way."

Observers will notice several differences between Ptach and regular classrooms. First, the pace of learning is slower. Rather than ask for three pages of division worksheets in math class, the teacher will beam with pride at three correctly done problems.

Also, individualized instruction, rather than lecture, is a more effective method. Each student spends anywhere from 10 minutes to a half-hour working with a teacher to hone study skills in each subject. Judy Tuchten, who teaches secular subjects to students in the lower grades of Ptach, said these study sessions bear the most fruit.

"The learning process for these students is like a locomotive," she said. "The results are slow at first, but then they increase. Learning one-on-one is effective because it allows them to perform according to their individual strengths, which would not happen in group learning."

The longevity of the student in the Ptach classroom is another asset, says Tuchten. It allows her to know each student in a way that cannot be mirrored by a regular classroom teacher.

"I have several years with each student, and I can really teach each one in a better fashion because I know each one's strengths and weaknesses."

Because Hebrew textbooks have not yet caught up to the needs of the learning-disabled child, Feuer laboriously handwrites a Hebrew and Bible notebook-workbook for each student. "This way, they feel that the notebook is theirs, they can keep it, and it means something to them," said Feuer, who, like all Ptach teachers, has a degree in special education.

The Ptach classes each have one teacher for Hebrew subjects and one for secular disciplines. Teachers often modify their teaching plans, as situations arise each day. Some children suffer from attention-deficit disorder (ADD), and without some creativity on the teachers' part, these students might distract others, impairing the learning process.

Nonetheless, the Ptach students participate, to varying levels, in schoolwide activities. Many of the students eat lunch and take gym class with their grade level. Some are mainstreamed for particular subjects, such as math or Hebrew. And most join the student body for morning davening and library.

"The goal is to mainstream each student as much as possible," Feuer said. "Sometimes, a student is even able to leave the Ptach classroom altogether and is placed at his or her grade level."

Ptach was founded in Chicago 17 years ago by the late Rabbi Isaac Mayefsky. It receives funding from both the Associated Talmud Torahs and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, and its students transcend the denominations. Professionals at the various day schools in Chicago will refer students to Ptach.

"Administrators in Jewish schools are more aware of special-needs children, and they want effective education for all their students," Feuer said. "At Ptach, we find the most appropriate way to service our students and we help them be as successful as possible."