When Elisheva’s two-year-old daughter was due to start preschool, she was not yet walking independently or communicating at a level typical of other two year olds. Elisheva (who asked that her last name not be used) said she was pleasantly surprised that “the staff at Shomrai not only accepted her to the school, but they fully embraced the challenge of working with a child who couldn’t physically keep up with the rest of the class.”
Elisheva’s daughter is one of many children who benefit from Shomrai Preschool’s commitment to inclusion. Three years ago, Shomrai Preschool, located in Silver Spring, Maryland, created The Anna Rutner Memorial Fund to honor a wonderful educator who made significant contributions to the Shomrai Preschool community. Morah Anna was an advocate on behalf of all children, and she was especially responsive to children with special needs.
“The Anna Rutner Memorial Fund is an invaluable resource to the children, families, and teachers of Shomrai Preschool,” said Suri Kinzbrunner, Shomrai Preschool’s director. “If we are to be a school that caters to the children of our community, we have to be willing to at least try to accommodate children of varying abilities. The Anna Rutner Memorial Fund helps us to do so in the best way possible.”
With the fund’s support, Shomrai Preschool contracts with Child Development Consultants (CDC) to help teachers create and maintain inclusive classrooms. CDC provides training for the teachers, observes them in their classrooms, and provides guidance on improving instructional practices and classroom management.
“I professionally have benefited from this program. The teachers are given training by a professional to teach us ways to manage our classrooms when we have children with special needs,” said Lisa Landy, a Pre-K teacher. “With the parents’ approval, we call in specialists through the fund who observe the child in our classroom, they then assess, and write a report. The therapists meet with families and teachers who work together as a team to support the child and implement recommendations tailor-made for that specific child. These interventions help us and the families support the child to integrate into the classroom community.”
Shomrai Preschool offers families the expertise of the CDC team, including an occupational therapist, an early childhood special educator and behavioral specialist, and a speech and language pathologist. The team can observe a child in their natural environment to assess how they function in “real life” situations. CDC collaborates with the family, school director, pedagogical consultant, and teachers to create highly individualized strategies and recommendations to support each child in the classroom.
“Our family came to truly appreciate Shomrai’s focus on inclusion when our daughter was diagnosed with selective mutism at age three. As worried parents, we found comfort in Shomrai’s tremendous commitment to our daughter,” said Emily Friedman. “We brought in an outside professional, an expert in the disorder. Shomrai went above and beyond to collaborate with her and support our child — from teacher training, to meetings, to progress monitoring, to allowing the clinician into the classroom to guide and direct the teachers in best practices for working with a child who has selective mutism.”
Elisheva had a similar experience with her daughter. “Her teachers worked tirelessly with her, doing the exercises provided by the therapists and taking note of what she was accomplishing and what she still needed help with ... We feel so fortunate to have had such a tremendous support system built in to the preschool environment.”
“While we also knew that everyone was doing ‘extra’ to help our daughter, we were never made to feel that way,” Friedman added. “With much gratitude to Hashem and the teachers and staff at Shomrai, we now have a vibrant, happy child who is ready for kindergarten.”
Shomrai Preschool also refers families to and collaborates with Infants and Toddlers, Child Find, and Child Link, which are free services provided by the county. Two years ago, Shomrai Preschool had an embedded advisor from Child Link providing expertise on mental health issues and best teaching practices, and the school has requested on-going support from Child Link for the 2018-2019 school year.
However, “many times children are not eligible to receive [county] services,” Landy explained. “This is when we are able to step in and help find the resources needed to help the child succeed in school through the fund.” By partnering with public and private practitioners, the school ensures that every child’s needs are met, and ultimately creates an improved learning environment for all students.
By Nancy Kohl
Nancy Kohl is the pedagogical consultant for Shomrai Preschool. Nancy has over 35 years of experience working as a master teacher, trainer, and parent educator, and she has presented at various local early childhood centers.