Students at the American Christian School in Succasunna work on exercises from the Arrowsmith Program, for kids with learning disabilities. Beginning in September, the Jewish Educational Center schools in Elizabeth will offer the program.
Photo by Carol Midkiff, courtesy of the American Christian School
June 5, 2008
What’s an Orthodox boy from West Orange doing at a Christian day school in Succasunna?
Boaz and Selene Brickman, members of the Orthodox Congregation Etz Chaim in Livingston, pulled their son out of an Orthodox yeshiva to send him to the American Christian School so their fourth-grader could take part in a program for learning disabled children at the only school in the area in which it is available.
Known as the Arrowsmith Program, it is based on an approach that, according to its literature, makes it “possible for students to strengthen the weak cognitive capacities underlying their learning dysfunctions.”
The American Christian School is currently the only school in New Jersey — and one of four schools in the United States — offering the program. The three schools outside New Jersey are, in fact, Jewish day schools; it was first introduced in the United States at the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach through Annette Goodman. Now chief education officer of Arrowsmith, Goodman worked for the school long before she had children of her own, and when it became clear to her that they were learning disabled, she introduced the program at their school.
In the fall, the Jewish Educational Center network of Orthodox schools in Elizabeth will offer Arrowsmith to a group of 10-12 students.
Developed in Canada and centered at the Arrowsmith School in Toronto, the program is based on the science of neuroplasticity, the idea that the brain can change. Its goal is to change the student’s ability to learn, rather than compensate for ways in which the student cannot learn. It seeks to strengthen areas where a student’s abilities are weak.
The three-year approach, which now diagnoses and addresses 19 different disabilities, was developed 30 years ago by Barbara Arrowsmith Young, who suffered with learning disabilities herself. It is in use at 15 schools in Canada.
Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz, assistant dean of the JEC, first learned about the program a year ago.
“It looked fascinating,” he said. “Lots of programs try to teach coping methods. Arrowsmith addresses core issues.”
But he initially had some concerns. Critics point out that in all the years it has been around, the school has not conducted any rigorous scientific studies to assess the success of its approach and uses only anecdotal evidence to support its claims.
Moreover, Teitz consulted professors at Columbia University — his alma mater — who told him they have not heard of it, he said.
“That raised red flags,” said Teitz. “If it’s been around for 30 years, why has no one heard of it at places like Columbia and Bank Street [College of Education]?”
But Teitz was eventually swayed by anecdotal evidence suggesting that after three years, many students show significant improvement and in many cases have moved up to grade level. According to one study, funded by the Donner Canadian Foundation and published in 2005, the approach best serves students of average to above average intelligence.
Teitz said he finds it encouraging that the Catholic school system in Toronto participates.
“I don’t want raise parents’ hopes too much,” he said. “But parents are grasping; when their kids aren’t succeeding, it’s a downward spiral for them. This is like throwing a life preserver to a drowning person.”
Nevertheless, Teitz said, he is approaching the program cautiously.
“We’re committed to three years, and we’ll do a year-by-year assessment,” he said. “We’re not making any promises and there is no guarantee that in three years, a child will not need services anymore. This is not a magic pill.”
If it works, he said, “it could be the difference for some students between success in life and bagging groceries.”
‘A ray of hope’
The American Christian School implemented Arrowsmith last fall, and headmaster Dr. Carol Midkiff said they are already seeing “remarkable” progress. She described one student who moved up five grade levels in reading and one in math, just during the first year.
“It’s life changing. It gives a person a ray of hope,” she said.
Midkiff described the different kinds of exercises students get, always designed to strengthen the brain’s weakest areas and create new pathways in the brain for neurons to follow.
The Brickmans said they are seeing a “major improvement” in their son’s reading skills. (They asked that his name not be used.)
“A lot of his problems were related to memory, so he could read and not remember what he read. Now he’s able to remember. That’s a building block,” said Boaz Brickman.
JEC will define success from the parents’ and children’s perspectives, said Teitz. “If the parents feel the child is succeeding and the child feels he is succeeding, that is success. If they have a sense of hope and feel better about themselves and have gained skills, from the educator’s perspective, that’s success — whether they are at grade level or not.”
Teitz has tapped a teacher without special education training to run the program. She will be sent to Toronto over the summer for a three-week training session. The choice was deliberate.
“Special education teachers will be way too skeptical,” he said, comparing it to teaching acupuncture to a Western-trained doctor.
Students in the Arrowsmith program will have to pay $10,000 above the normal JEC tuition, said Teitz, adding, “We just can’t undertake the cost of this program.”
Currently, said Teitz, about 150 out of 900 kids, or one in six children in the JEC system, receive some kind of support services.
As for the Brickmans, they’re thrilled and now hope they will be able to enroll their son in the program at JEC. Slots will be offered by lottery. While they said ACS has been “extremely accommodating and respectful,” they are looking forward to having their son back in a Jewish environment for fifth grade.
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