One of the first things Tim and I discussed when I started writing for Think Inclusive was my unique perspective as a director of an inclusive private school. It often comes as a surprise to many that private religious schools are not bound by the same laws that govern public secular schools. This means that inclusion of all children, regardless of ability, could well be an afterthought. How do we ensure that it is not?

When delivering speeches or leading workshops I like to make the “hot dog” joke. You know, as a religious organization we are committed to inclusion because, “We answer to higher authority!”

It gets a laugh, but it resonates. And it’s the truth. Religious schools may not be legally obligated, but we are certainly morally obligated to include all of our students.

So, how do we do it?

There are two schools of thought to guide those seeking to start a program:

  1. Work with the existing population to meet their needs in the most successful ways possible.
  2. Create inclusive program structures, market aggressively and students will come.

I believe that most schools need a balance of both. If you are at square one, it is ok to be a little reactive. If there are students who are struggling to find success in your existing program, I think your school owes it to them to develop the strategies and programs necessary to support them appropriately. But I urge caution. When we simply create programs around specific students, we can run the risk of segregating and/or excluding them. It is always the ideal, even as you work to meet individual needs, to strive to create sustainable, ongoing inclusive structures.

The following questions can help you to launch the process:

  • Are there children currently in your school who are struggling to learn in the traditional classroom programs?
  • Are there families that are a part of your school community that do not send one of their children because they believe that you “can’t handle them”?
  • Are there families that you have had to turn away because you do not have the appropriate resources?

When our school we began to examine issues of inclusion more closely thirteen years ago, we recognized that there were children in our program who were significantly struggling to learn Hebrew in our traditional classrooms. As a result, some were acting out, while others were completely shutting down. We wanted these children to love religious school, to gain an understanding of their Jewish heritage and to feel connected to their Jewish community;; these are the same things we want for all of our children. That was enough of an incentive for us to work with the families and develop the structures that would meet the students’ needs more effectively. But we did not stop there. That was simply the springboard to ensure that as we moved forward, each new program was designed to be accessible and inclusive.

While programs need to be accessible, inclusion is an attitude. Inclusion is a deep seated belief that every child is special is his/her own way, and that every child has a unique capacity to learn, grow and contribute to the world. It really isn’t the program that we create or the class that we teach or the students that we strive to engage. A school is truly successful when inclusion is a part of the culture and when it is a genuine and integral part of the school’s mission.