Day schools look at the future of paying for special education

One in five Jewish day-school students may, at one time or another, grapple with a learning disability, according to a local learning specialist.

With that in mind, many area day schools have adopted special-education programs to help strugglers keep up with their peers.

Those programs, however, are in jeopardy as several grants, which support up to a third of the cost for special education at six Bay Area day schools, near expiration.

The grants provided by the S.F.-based Ziff Foundation vary in amount by school and help to pay the salaries of learning specialists.

Now that the programs receive funds from local Jewish federations, Koret and other donors, Ziff officials plan to ease off on such aid, which was intended only to get the programs off the ground. Ziff will continue the yearly grants until 1999, giving the schools time to raise additional money.

"We feel that we've accomplished our goal," said Lela Sarnat, Ziff president. There are "thriving substantial programs in four of the day schools and new programs in some of the others."

The six recipient schools include the Mid-Peninsula Jewish Community Day School in Palo Alto, the South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale, the Jewish Day School of the North Peninsula in San Mateo, Oakland Hebrew Day School and campuses of Brandeis Hillel Day School in San Francisco and San Rafael.

At Brandeis Hillel in San Francisco, learning specialist Yael Weinreb has run the school's special-ed program since it started four years ago. In the beginning, the Ziff grant paid for 50 percent of the program.

Weinreb understands how valuable that money has become; she recently saw some of her first students graduate with peers their age.

"We try not to let kids fall through the cracks. Our goal is to keep them in school," she said.

Weinreb's job starts when a teacher or parent suspects that a child is having trouble academically. She then evaluates the student or sends them to a private evaluator for more intensive testing.

The test results, she explained, could fall anywhere in a wide range of learning disabilities, from those that require remedial education to specialized lessons for gifted children who are markedly deficient in other areas.

After the testing, Weinreb designs a personalized academic plan for each child, consulting with the student's teachers and parents, and may work individually with the child.

The program is designed to keep pace with a rigorous schoolwide curriculum, meaning that special-ed curricula also are intensive. And with most special-ed kids matriculating on schedule for their age, something appears to be working.

At many Jewish day schools, Weinreb explains, "the academic level is higher [than at public schools] and kids reach a frustration level earlier. With smaller classes, [typical of day schools], teachers tend to pick up faster" on a learning disability.

Despite the high cost of special ed, parents of learning disabled children do not pay extra tuition. As a result, Brandeis Hillel must raise in excess of $100,000 a year to pay for the program.

Charging parents extra is not a realistic option, administrators said, since most families already pay about $9,000 for a high-caliber education. Many would be hard-pressed to pay for both.

The alternatives to day-school special ed are not attractive options for most Jewish parents — send the kids to a public school, which is required by state law to provide free special education, sacrificing their Jewish education, or pay for a private learning specialist in addition to day-school tuition.

Like Brandeis Hillel, other area day schools also absorb the extra cost of special education.

"This is the responsibility of the community," said Henry Shreibman, the head of Brandeis Hillel. "These are our Jewish children."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.