A philanthropic group has received a $1.89 million grant designed to help Jewish day schools in the area better teach students with special needs.
Unlike public schools, private schools are not legally required to create special education programs for students who have difficulty learning in traditional classrooms. In the past, Jewish day schools have not always been equipped to serve those students, said Alan Oliff, director of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies Initiative for Day School Excellence.
“This all came about because some students were not able to be served, and families were really very invested and interested in Jewish day school education,’’ said Oliff, whose Boston-based group has been working on the issue for the past six years.
Advocates hope the new grant, announced earlier this month, will increase the number of special-needs students at the 13 Jewish day schools in the Greater Boston area. Six schools will be chosen to participate in a program that could become a model for other schools.
Eligible schools include Gann Academy in Waltham; JCDS, Boston’s Jewish Community Day School in Watertown; Maimonides School in Brookline; MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham; New England Hebrew Academy in Brookline; the Rashi School in Dedham; Solomon Schechter Day School in Newton; Kehillah Schechter Academy in Norwood; Striar Hebrew Academy in Sharon; and Torah Academy in Brookline.
“The idea of people wanting to be in a Jewish day school has really increased,’’ said Amy Gold, director of curriculum and instruction at the Rashi School in Dedham. “The question is, is there a way for them to be flexible? A child who wants a Jewish education should never be turned away.’’
Combined Jewish Philanthropies estimates that between 15 and 20 percent of current students at Boston-area Jewish day schools have a special learning need, Oliff said.
The grants are designed to create “whole school’’ models for students with special needs and will cover professional development and other training for teachers. The six schools will also collaborate on the best methods of teaching.
Three schools will be awarded grant money for three-year programs beginning this September, and three more schools will receive funds to start in September 2013. They will work with Gateways: Access to Jewish Education, a Newton group, and Yeshiva University in New York.
Behzad Dayanim, head of school at MetroWest Jewish Day School in Framingham, said his facility would be applying for one of the grants.
The school, which already has been working with Gateways to become more accessible to students with special needs, has one full-time special needs staff member and soon hopes to hire another one part time, he said. Most of the school’s teachers also have training in educating children with special needs.
This academic year, for the first time, a student with Down syndrome is attending kindergarten part time, Dayanim said.
Jewish day schools have sometimes struggled to accommodate students with special needs, he said, and he hopes the grant will make that work easier. Educators are beginning to recognize the importance in opening schools to a broader range of students, he said.
“Certainly there are boundaries to what you can manage, but I think there’s a really wide range of children who could be better accommodated,’’ Dayanim said. “There is finally a recognition that this is something that is really, really important.’’
Dayanim has studied how private schools evolve, and he found that while many schools start out with a diverse group of students, the schools tend to become more homogenous over time. “I don’t think it’s because they don’t want to be diverse,’’ he said. “I think it’s easier to move the ship along if everyone is on the same page.’’
The grant is “critically important’’ to local Jewish schools because it will help all students, not just those with special needs, learn better, said Susie Tanchel, head of school at Boston’s Jewish Community Day School in Watertown.
“It likely would also allow JCDS to admit a broader range of students who previously we were not able to serve,’’ she said in a statement.
The Jim Joseph Foundation, a private foundation in California, provided most of the grant money, and the Ruderman Family Foundation, which operates in Greater Boston and Israel, contributed $200,000.Kathleen Burge can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.