Educating Each Student as a Whole
Ohr Torah Stone’s Derech Avot High School for Boys places tremendous value on the importance of educating the “whole person,” addressing educational, emotional, social and religious needs to help each student develop and succeed to the best of his abilities.
Among the school’s 480 students, nearly one quarter receive special education support and the school has earned a reputation for constant innovation and excellence in educating children with a range of abilities.
Over the past year, Derech Avot has developed and expanded some of its innovative programs targeting teachers, students and parents, in order to help each student – of every ability – become the best he can be.
Using “Dramatic” Approaches to Resolve Everyday Challenges
Students with special needs often struggle to learn in traditional classroom settings, and teachers may be hard pressed to know how to best respond to challenging behavior. To this end, Derech Avot hired a drama therapist to develop a “Living Laboratory” – guided simulations which help teachers, parents, and students discuss, explore and develop hands-on solutions to address typical challenges faced by students with special needs.
Fifty teachers participated in the Living Laboratory sessions this year, acting out situations developed by the therapist based on challenges they frequently face in the classroom. As a group, they analyzed the “student’s” behavior and the “teacher’s” response in each situation, practicing practical strategies and communication skills to use in actual classroom situations.
“I have years of experience in special education and even so, I gained so many skills that I was able to implement immediately,” said Tehilla Schorr, Coordinator of the Progressive Learning Classrooms at Derech Avot. “I now use simulation as a tool for preparing to handle challenging situations and it has had a tremendous impact on my work.”
High School for Parents
Similarly, parents of children with special needs often feel ill-equipped to effectively communicate with their children and meet their social, emotional and educational needs. Working together with Ayeka – an organization that specializes in parental education and guidance – Derech Avot provided an inaugural workshop for parents of 7th and 8th grade students, where they were taught effective communications skills and strategies for developing positive relationships with their sons.
“The facilitators taught us how to parent with patience and empathy, and to create a sense of partnership with our children to help them be their best selves,” testified one participant. “I feel like I really gained tools for changing my own language in speaking to my son,” said another. “This has helped us build a more positive and healthier relationship.”
Canine Training: Therapeutic and Practical
Students in Israeli high schools select a major – an area of academic studies on which they typically focus from 10th through 12th grades and which qualifies towards their matriculation requirements. Often, due to their academic and social challenges, students with special needs have trouble completing their educational requirements and also struggle to find appropriate roles for military service in the IDF, which is seen as an important rite of passage for young Israeli adults. An inability to complete IDF service can further increase social isolation for those already struggling socially.
This past year, Derech Avot introduced the opportunity for students with special needs to select a canine- training course as their major, in a special course recognized by the Ministry of Education. This track offers yet another avenue for students to fulfill their matriculation requirements while also providing students the positive mental and physical health benefits of dog-therapy. Moreover, participation in this special track is accepted as a preliminary criteria for acceptance into the IDF’s “Oketz” canine unit.
An Innovative Approach to Building Life Skills
People with Autism Syndrome Disorder (ASD) often struggle socially due to difficulties communicating effectively with others. They need practical training to develop healthy social interactions and communications skills that developmentally healthy people understand intuitively.
This year, a speech therapist who specializes in ASD was hired to work with students both individually and in small groups. In addition to ongoing individual and group therapy, the speech therapist implemented an innovative new project: the kiosk. She tasked a small group of students with developing a food stall business; hatching a plan, making decisions, initiating and maintaining conversations with customers and vendors. The speech therapist worked closely with her students during each step of the process to help them develop these crucial life skills.
“These are students who typically sit alone and play on their phones during recess,” said the speech therapist, Reut Siman Tov. “They don’t interact much with their peers because they are uncomfortable and unsure how to go about interactions that come naturally to most people. Working on the kiosk enabled them to develop themselves in so many ways: they learned how to communicate in a group and with individuals, how to present to an audience and how to be ‘salesmen,’ she related. “The project gave them confidence as they developed communication skills that they will need throughout their lives.”
This year, for the first time, Derech Avot partnered with Mercaz Tachlis, a licensed organization that teaches hands-on skills in specific creative, professional fields. Recognizing that many special education students struggle with low self-esteem and a sense of failure in traditional school classrooms, we connected with Mercaz Tachlis to offer students a place where they could learn high level professional skills, experience success, and build self-confidence.
Students had the opportunity to select one of three courses: carpentry, metal work, or 3-D printing. Through the classes, students developed pride in their work, as they produced beautiful products, increased their self-esteem and developed new professional skills. The importance of this opportunity cannot be overstated. Many of these students have not experienced academic success. A sense of failure and lack of confidence often creates a cycle of negative behavior which only reinforces negative feelings about school, overall. Through Mercaz Tachlis, students felt successful, in some cases for the first time in their lives, and developed pride in their work and abilities. At the same time, they learned skills that can be translated into future employment.
According to Rabbi Yoni Hollander, Principal of Derech Avot, “I am tremendously proud of our staff for always seeking to innovate, and educate themselves. Our goal is to help each student develop academically, socially, emotionally and religiously and we are extremely grateful to the donors who have made it possible for us to provide our parent body and students of all abilities to attain this goal.”