Herzlia’s inclusion policy: Making Jewish values a reality

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“The Hebrew word for charity, ‘tzedakah’, translates as ‘justice.’ This is not just funding, it is advocacy in making the world a better place,” says philanthropist Jay Ruderman, President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, who was in Cape Town to visit United Herzlia Schools , one of five international organisations to be awarded the Ruderman Prize in Disability for 2013.

United Herzlia Schools (UHS), has a fully-fledged inclusive programme that welcomes all children with learning and physical disabilities. “Herzlia adopted an inclusion philosophy in 1997 and today all 10 campuses are inclusive schools that cater for all the children of the Cape Town Jewish community no matter what their academic, physical or financial situation may be,” says Geoff Cohen, Director of Education at the UHS.

The Ruderman Prize recognises organisations that operate innovative services fostering the full inclusion of people with disabilities in local Jewish communities. “This is about changing attitudes,” said Ruderman. “It’s about prioritising the value of inclusion. All the winners are organisations not focused on the issue of disability but have developed innovative programmes to include people with disabilities in the overall mission of their organisation,” he explained.

In only its second year, the prize has become international, as 244 organisations applied in 2013. Each winner received $50,000 to continue their work and pursue new opportunities for inclusion.

“It is so gratifying to know that our work has been recognised and we are humbled and honoured to be a recipient of this prestigious prize,” said Cohen.

Support at every stage

Herzlia’s Inclusion Programme began with just 5 students and one Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO) in 1997. It has evolved into a sophisticated programme, where support is offered at each stage of the child’s academic journey. The UHS currently employs 21 full-time learning support teachers, 5 part-time, 6 full-time facilitators and 7 remedial staff. This excludes another 20 teachers and staff that are paid directly by parents. The number of pupils requiring extensive learning support has grown to 80 in 2013.

At the core of the inclusion programme are Herzlia’s Learning Centres, each with a dedicated team of SENCOs, remedial teachers, social workers, psychologists and outsourced therapists who provide support from basic remediation to Individualised Education Plans (IEPs). These centres are equipped with technology, learning materials and resources. All educators are required to attend regular development training in the area of inclusion.

“We want to use this funding to ensure that every Jewish child in Cape Town can afford an inclusive Jewish education, no matter what the financial position of the parents,” said Cohen. Costs also go into the Learning Centres, resources and training staff, so that everyone from educators to administrators can create an inclusive environment at the UHS.

A leader in inclusive education

Since Herzlia was announced as a Ruderman prize winner, interest in the school’s inclusion policy has grown. Herzlia has publicised its programmes and is increasingly being called upon to provide a model of inclusion for other schools, both in South Africa and around the world This is exactly what the Rudermans hope to achieve — that the award will draw attention to the need for inclusion and that the winners can be leaders in this arena, especially in their Jewish communities.

Ruderman, who is also a Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) Board member, was accompanied on his visit to the school by Solly Kaplinski, Executive Director of Overseas Joint Ventures at the JDC and a former Principal at Herzlia Schools. “Jay is not just a ‘chequebook philanthropist’” said Kaplinski. “He wants to create a common vision. His foundation believes that people with disabilities deserve the same opportunities as everyone else, and every community needs and deserves their contributions. Inclusion is fair, essential and strengthens us all.”

“This should be a necessity, not a luxury,” said Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, after visiting Herzlia. “We have a responsibility to our community.”

Reflecting on memorable moments, Cohen recalls interviewing a girl with cerebral palsy. “Just as I was wondering if she would cope physically with getting around the school, she said ‘Look!’ and ran up 3 flights of stairs. It is this fighting spirit that demonstrates why all children should be given all opportunities.”

“Policies like this lead to young people knowing that inclusion is normal, that it reflects wider society,” said Ruderman, “and this can impact their choices.” Recalling another anecdote, Cohen remembers how a boy with special needs was invited to a barmitzvah for the first time after being at Herzlia for a few weeks; while another class, on their own initiative, organised a roster to carry the schoolbag of a disabled child.

Challenges remain, such as maintaing a learning environment that caters for all abilities on a daily basis; and the bullying that children sometimes inflict on each other. Yet at the same time, “we have 2100 children in our system; and we have 2100 children with ‘special needs’,” says Cohen. “All children have strengths and weaknesses, and we cater for them all.”

Contact Geoff Cohen on geoffc@herzlia.com or visit www.herzlia.com or www.rudermanfoundation.org