BY LEAH BRAUNSTEIN LEVY / AJT //
Greenfield Hebrew Academy’s first grade M’silot class is lined up on the rug, expectant and eager. They’re a small group, but they have lots of energy.
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They want to demonstrate how they do “double stacks.”
“Ready?” teacher Gail Skolsky asks.
They are more than ready. They are about to turn math into a song-and-dance number.
“Zero plus zero is zero, oh!
One plus one is two, oooh!
Two plus two is four, more!
Three plus three is six, kicks!”
And so it goes, up to “ten plus ten is twenty, that’s plenty!”
Then they take out their needlepoint – that’s right, needlepoint – because “the whole first grade is studying Colonial America and needlepoint is amazing for coordinating fine motor skills,” Skolsky says.
The children aren’t interested in educational technique; all they know is that they love to learn in Gail Skolsky’s class.
Fourteen years ago, Phyllis Rosenthal, a director at GHA, wondered where children with learning differences could find a program tailored to their individual needs while maintaining their Jewish culture.
With the support of GHA administrators, Rosenthal traveled around the country, observing programs aimed at children who learn differently. She and her staff searched for the best methods to teach such students.
They would eventually develop their own programs to apply what they learned to core curriculum subjects as well as Judaic and Hebrew language studies. After a year of exhaustive preparation, GHA’s Matthew Blumenthal M’silot program became a reality with its first eight students in 1999.
M’silot is the Hebrew word for “pathways” and Matthew Blumenthal was a GHA alumnus. In 1999, Matthew’s grandparents, Saul and Adele Blumenthal, z”l, donated the seed money to fund the M’silot program in his memory. In 2011, Matthew’s parents, Elaine and Jerry Blumenthal, continued the work that their family started with a sustaining gift.
“The parents of our first eight students were really pioneers,” Rosenthal says. “The program didn’t exist; there was no one for them to observe, no experienced parents to meet.
Rosenthal adds that the first teachers in the program worked with her to invent entirely new curricula.
”When I was developing the program,” she says, “there was nothing out there like us . . . so I guess I was a pioneer, too!”
Today, the Matthew Blumenthal M’silot program reaches from kindergarten through eighth grade, teaching students with learning differences who need a specialized learning environment.
“Our students have average to above-average intelligence, but before they come to M’silot, they find that they are not responding to traditional instruction. They’re just not making the progress that they should,” Rosenthal says. “These are children who need specialized instruction to succeed. They may have deficits in language, in visual processing, in auditory processing, in memory. They may have issues with motor skills. They need extra support, or just different techniques to become the lifelong learners we know they can be.”
To this end, every student in M’silot has their own customized Individual Education Plan (IEP). There are small classes, to enable students to get individual attention; all their teachers have expertise in the field of learning disabilities, including the Judaics teachers.
The Orton-Gillingham method to reading is one of the approaches M’silot uses for instruction, and teachers stay up-to-date on the latest thinking in education. First-rate technology is available for students, with literacy support software, a “SMART Board” in every classroom, and a laptop for every student in the third grade and above.
Speech and language specialists are a built-in part of the program, including the recent addition of a Social Thinking counselor to coach students in social communication, known to be linked to language skills.
There is also an occupational therapist with a state-of-the-art occupational therapy gym on site. All these people, programs and material are just a few of the reasons the Matthew Blumenthal M’silot program has been so successful.
Of course, as part of the Greenfield Hebrew Academy, M’silot students also learn to embrace their Jewish heritage with the study of Torah and Jewish customs. GHA’s love for Israel is a vital part of its mission, and children in M’silot learn reading, writing, and conversational Hebrew using differentiated instruction.
One of the unique characteristics of the Matthew Blumenthal program is that although it is a school within a school, M’silot students are also very much of the school.
For everything other than their specific classroom lessons, the M’silot students are completely integrated with the rest of their grade.
Rosenthal stresses that one of the most important things the Matthew Blumenthal M’silot program does is teach their students that there are “All Kinds of Minds.”
Students learn to identify their own learning styles, their own strengths and weaknesses, and identify strategies and techniques to help them achieve their goals. This makes their transitions back into mainstream education much smoother.
“A child who knows what he needs is a child prepared to ask and to become successful,” Rosenthal says.
Because of the individual attention, M’silot students are evaluated and considered for transition every year. This support continues throughout their years at GHA. To smooth the entry to high school, a M’silot team even visits all the local high schools to evaluate their suitability for individual students.
The program also offers the Running Start kindergarten, a program designed to boost at-risk learners. With early intervention, by teaching techniques for each learning style, certain issues can be addressed before they become problematic.
“Our Running Start kindergarteners might start first grade in the mainstream class, with or without support, or in the M’silot first grade, or they might attend a year of mainstream kindergarten,” Rosenthal says. “We use that year as a diagnostic tool, and work with parents to determine the best path for each child.”
Several schools have come to observe GHA’s M’silot program, which is nationally known for its excellence. Most recently, a day school in California and a New York school for students with language differences have consulted with Rosenthal, planning to use M’silot as a model for their own programs.
“Here at GHA, we believe that every child is capable of learning,” says GHA Princiapal Leah Summers. “We actualize the adage Chanoch hana’ar al pi darko, (Teach each student in his or her own way.) It is our job as educators to figure out the best way for them to learn.”
Graduates of the programs are grateful for the support, the skills, and the nurturing they found at GHA.
“I was always determined to do as much as I can and reach for the highest goals,” one graduate says. “M’silot gave me the tools to do that.”
Another graduate rattles off the names of colleges that accepted her.
“Had I not been in a program like M’silot, I might not have made it into schools like this,” she says.
Her father agrees, and credits the foundation she received from M’silot for making her an organized, efficient learner.
“M’silot is the Hebrew word for ‘pathways,’” Rosenthal says, “and we have always stressed that, although different children take different pathways to learning, they arrive at the same place in the end.”
About the writer
Leah Braunstein Levy is a paraprofessional at GHA and the author of “The Waiting Wall”, a Sydney Taylor Notable Book for 2010. Her work appears in a new collection of essays, “Kaddish, Women’s Voices”, available from Urim Publications.