By Marc Goldsmith
I didn’t know these pioneers in the fall of 2014 when they began blazing a trail, leaving their familiar surroundings to venture into the unknown. They were lured from their communities by a promise akin to a steamship handbill dangling the prospect of golden riches out west. Still, these pioneers and their families set their hopes on this new uncharted territory. Or if not, they were prepared to risk it anyway, because pulling up stakes for even the chance of a brighter horizon had become an imperative.
The communities from which these pioneers emigrated were a handful of excellent day schools, all with well-deserved reputations for offering first-class Jewish and secular educations. Not for lack of trying, however, these institutions were not succeeding with a population of lively, curious children, the pioneers-to-be, whose lack of academic progress was a daily blow to their spirits.
“I thought I was stupid,” admits Eliana, describing her years at a mainstream yeshiva day school. She was constantly pulled out of class for special tutoring and was “too embarrassed to tell my friends where I was.” Even with the individualized help, headway was glacial. Eliana remembers crying after school every day and lying in bed feeling completely hopeless.
The new frontier promising a fresh start to Eliana and her fellow pioneers was Shefa, an incipient Jewish day school for students with language-based learning disabilities. For years, educator Ilana Ruskay-Kidd had been hearing from anguished parents forced to choose between a Jewish education and schools designed to meet the needs of different kinds of learners. Even more haunting were the unheard voices of Jewish children who could not contribute to conversations of learning because their schools lacked the know-how to unlock their potential. Ruskay-Kidd and her team of educators had that know-how, and together they planned a school.
Before the pioneers arrived, Shefa was a school in name only, having never held a class and possessed of little more than a few rented rooms in an upper west side synagogue. Nevertheless, in September 2014, twenty-four students in grades 2-5, along with their parents, took Ruskay-Kidd at her word that the classroom failures these youngsters had experienced were not failures of character or effort, and that students who learn differently could thrive academically, socially, and emotionally in a warm, Jewish environment.
For Eliana, one of the fifth-grade pioneers, Shefa was a game changer. Within weeks, she recalled, “I knew I wasn’t stupid.”
The school has since grown to 110 students in grades two through eight, and on June 12, eleven of the pioneers graduated Shefa’s eighth grade, becoming the school’s first alumni. When they entered Shefa, many read at a first-grade level, were unable to spell simple words phonetically, and were stymied by basic addition and subtraction. All the pioneers depart reading novels and on grade level in math. Some advanced as far as tenth-grade geometry. Eliana even discovered a love for Shakespeare and John Steinbeck. Shefa met and challenged each of them at his or her level, tailoring its multi-sensory curriculum to the individual.
As the pioneers were settling into their new school and making it their own, I began training for a second career as a teacher. In 2016 I joined the Shefa faculty as a Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, and two years later, can’t imagine a more rewarding classroom experience. Having been shut out of learning in their early elementary years, the Shefa pioneers thirst for knowledge and strive to master the strategies that enable them to process new content and join in conversations of ideas. They sometimes falter, but never give up. Their moxie humbles me daily.
Of course, the pioneers are nervous about leaving the confines of Shefa’s small, nurturing environment. They will miss their friends, to whom they are connected with a bond that Eliana describes as “so strong because we struggled and succeeded together.”
But they move forward with confidence because they know they were not coddled at Shefa. Many who visited the mainstream schools where they will be freshmen noted that they had already covered some of what was being taught. Even more importantly, they know that they know how to approach new texts, equations, and ideas. The pioneers embark on the next leg of their journey with remarkable insight into themselves as learners, understanding that they now possess the skills and mindset to take on whatever challenges the next frontiers bring.
Marc Goldsmith is a lead teacher in the Shefa middle school.