Success is the only option when it comes to OROT, the learning and developmental program developed 18 years ago to enable children with learning difficulties to get the most from their Jewish day school experience.
That’s been the mantra of Beverly Bernstein, OROT’s educational director, since day one. No matter what issues a child may have, her mission is to devise a formula that works.
“All OROT classes are geared for success,” Bernstein said. “If we start a kid in a program that’s not working, we switch.
“We find a program where the child will succeed. They might understand they have to learn differently is the term we use. But they can learn.”
The idea is that the students learn enough and develop enough social and classroom skills so they can eventually become a part of the educational mainstream. In the process, not only do the OROT students thrive, but everyone else feels good about their progress, too.
While 18 years — chai — is the symbol for life, the OROT name has a significance all its own.
“OROT means lights,” explained Bernstein, who noted that OROT has programs at both Perelman Jewish Day Schools, Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, Politz Hebrew Academy and the middle school at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy. “We chose that name because these children are going to be the lights of our lives.
“These are children who need to learn in small groups. Some of their communication skills are not on level, and many times their social skills are not on level.
“So we do direct teaching of social skills. … We teach it and reinforce it and reinforce it and reinforce it.”
For students to be eligible for OROT, a psychological evaluation is required; that usually occurs at the parents’ request or when a mainstream school notices the child is unable to keep up with the rest of the class.
The bottom line, though, is that despite their disabilities these children are capable of co-existing with their peers on many levels, Bernstein said. And when it comes to getting a Jewish education, this is the best opportunity to achieve that.
“We work very closely with the principals of all the schools,” said Bernstein, who rotates from school to school. “They’re open-minded, and they really want any child who wants a Jewish education to get one. The environment speaks for itself.”
What makes OROT work is the individualized attention each student receives, Bernstein said.
According to Bernstein, there are 12 full-time teachers — each with a master’s degree — for the 48 OROT students in the five schools. But it’s not exactly a 1-to-4 ratio. In some cases, especially when the OROT student enters a mainstream classroom, the teacher accompanies them to make sure they’re adjusting.
That’s just one reason why OROT tuition is $9,000, in addition to that specific school’s tuition. Scholarships are available depending upon the degree of financial need and other factors, but the cost factor is the main reason why OROT is unable to go beyond the eighth grade.
The hope is that by that time the student will be able to make a successful transition to a mainstream school.
“We work with each teacher on curriculum development,” Bernstein said. “Once we figure it out for each student, at times we can group students. One success of OROT is we don’t have a program you have to go into. We look at the child’s needs and develop a program around it. We gradually mainstream them.”
And OROT has found that the other kids benefit, too.
“I could never have imagined this program would make such an impact on children, on families on schools, on mainstream children,” Bernstein said. “Other kids who understand now it’s OK to be different.
“The OROT program has taught mainstream children patience, tolerance, kindness and acceptance.”
No wonder schools like Politz Hebrew Academy are happy to have OROT around.
“There’s a difference between sinking and swimming, and in this school we don’t allow anybody to sink,” said Besie Katz, the Politz principal since long before OROT arrived. “Having OROT is as natural as having math, English, science and reading.
“OROT is educational oxygen. These kids cannot breathe without it. If they didn’t have it and couldn’t come here, that would really be a tragedy.”
There seems no imminent danger of that thanks to grants OROT receives from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, along with the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program (OSTC) and the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) program.
In addition, OROT will celebrate its 18th birthday with a May 18 event at Barrack featuring the Maccabeats.
“OROT has become part of fabric of each school,” Bernstein said. “We’re there and they expect us to be there and make it happen.”
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