Adriana Saccal has a message about integrating special needs children into mainstream classrooms: It works.
She should know. The Jewish mother of three from Buenos Aires, Argentina, enrolled her three children, none of whom have special needs, in the Arlene Fern Community Day School — the only one of 20 Jewish day schools in that South American city that integrates its pupils.
The results, as she sees them, are astounding. Her kids really don’t see special needs children as different, she said. Whatever disabilities they have are mere inconveniences — things for which they should be accommodated, not separated.
“We know after 12 years of [the school’s] existence, that the benefits of integrating are more important than all the difficulties,” said Saccal, a former member of the Arlene Fern school board.
Saccal came to Pittsburgh last week to appear at a fundraising program at the Concordia Club on Friday hosted by Bernita Buncher. She also spoke that same weekend at Temple Sinai.
Jane Siegel, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University and a Temple Sinai board member, who’s visited the school, said at least $10,000 was raised over the weekend — enough to endow the tuition of one special needs pupil at the school.
“And we know it will be more than that,” Siegel added. “There were people who took envelopes [at Temple Sinai], but couldn’t write checks [because of the Sabbath].”
Each classroom in the Arlene Fern model has two teachers, one of whom is a trained therapist working closely with the special needs kids. The instructors make lesson plans together and are approachable by all students in the class.
The idea is for special needs children to follow the lesson plans as closely as possible.
That may not be close at all in some cases, Saccal said. The rest of the class might be performing arithmetic problems while special needs kids are just practicing their numbers. But the mere fact that they sit in the same classrooms, wear the same school uniforms and sit with their mainstream classmates during lunch has significant value.
“By teaching kids when they are very little these differences are normal, they grow up thinking it’s not bad,” Saccal said. “This makes a better society.”
But the school is expensive. Tuition for special needs children comes to $10,000 a year; for mainstream kids, it’s $4,500 — about 15 percent more than they would pay at other Jewish day schools — in order to support the special needs program.
Arlene Fern depends on tuition for its survival; it gets no assistance from the government or the Buenos Aires Jewish community.
Yet parents clamor to enroll their children there, including many non-Jewish parents.
“We receive so many families who come and beg for a place in the special needs program,” Saccal said.
One reason is few schools in the city — Jewish or not — have integrated systems, and she claims community attitudes toward special needs children lag behind those in the United States. She said the city only recently built sidewalk ramps so wheelchair bound residents could get around.
Arlene Fern currently has 600 students enrolled, of whom, 27 have some sort of special need.
With the exception of autistic children, Arlene Fern accepts special needs children with all types of conditions.
“You have to be thankful for what God gave you,” Saccal said. “It’s not granted; you have to be grateful every single day.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)