Education Ministry cuts autism funds; parents say kids are left in the lurch

By MARISSA LEVY
October 14, 2007 22:41
4 minute read.

For the first 10 days of the new school year, the school bus to the Sadnat Shiluv school stopped in front of Yechiel Wolitsky's Jerusalem home. Every morning Yechiel, a 13-year-old autistic pupil, climbed on the bus and took a seat next to the school's other Jerusalem students, settling in for the hour-long ride to Gush Etzion's Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim, which houses the special education school and Yechiel's new class there. But on September 11, the bus never came. On that day, less than two weeks into the new school year, the Education Ministry closed the doors on a new special educational program at Sadnat Shiluv dedicated to the specific and complicated needs of children diagnosed with autism, The Jerusalem Post has learned. The ministry refuses to fund the costs necessary to transport Sadnat Shiluv's three new Jerusalem-based students to the West Bank area school. Armored transportation continues to operate for the school's previously matriculated students, none of whose classes were canceled. Sadnat Shiluv's latest special education program, which was made up of new five students, offered a unique curriculum specifically catered to children diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder, an umbrella term for a category of disorders that inhibit the development of socialization and communication skills. In its refusal to authorize the PDD class, the ministry cited the Law of Special Education, which requires children to attend schools that are as close to their homes as possible. Since three of the five prospective students live in Jerusalem, more than 35 kilometers from Gush Etzion, the ministry pulled the plug on the PDD program. Lea Shaked, the ministry's inspector of special educational facilities, said the office can't afford to continue busing new students to Sadnat Shiluv indefinitely. "To open a class for autistic children, even though we are speaking of only five children, is NIS 1 million a year, and that doesn't include the cost of traveling," Shaked said. "We didn't think it was justified to open a new class (at Sadnat Shiluv)." According to school administrators, the PDD class opened at the beginning of the school year after getting verbal approval from ministry officials this summer. The class closed when the ministry announced it refused to grant Sadnat Shiluv permission for the program. Shaked said ministry officials never gave the green light. Children with PDD may have difficulty using and understanding language, experience trouble relating to their external environment and exhibit repetitive body movements or behavior patterns. The short-lived program used animal-assisted therapy, arts and crafts and a special teaching system for autistic children to improve its students' cognitive and social skills. Most students at Sadnat Shiluv find a home there after unsuccessfully integrating at mainstream educational facilities. Sadnat Shiluv opened its doors in 2001. "These are children who have just fallen through the cracks. They've been thrown from (school to school) and just don't fit anywhere else," said Yechiel's mother Rivka Wolitzky. Parents of the all-boy class, whose students ranged from age 12 to 14, said they've tried contacting the ministry to reopen the PDD class or find a new solution for the children, but have been almost completely stonewalled. Faxes and phone calls have gone unanswered, and requests for personal appointments have been rebuffed, they said. Their efforts culminated in two demonstrations outside the Education Ministry, including one on Sunday and one last Thursday, the latter attended by four out the class's five students. "Most of the time, we were out there just telling (the ministry) that we've tried peaceful means, we've tried talking to you, but you won't talk to us," Wolitzky said. "Every child in Israel is supposed to be taken care of. Our children aren't being taken care of." The program's closure has left its five pupils and their families without the progressive educational framework they say they desperately need. For the last month, Yechiel has been spending his days at his former school, Yaskil Pehu, supervised by a school-issued babysitter until 1:30 p.m., since the school said no other class there could accommodate his needs. Leah Hochbaum's 13-year-old son Yedidya hasn't been to school at all since the PDD class closed last month. Yedidya, who attended Rosh Tzurim's local elementary school until last year, when it was determined his needs were not being adequately met, simply has nowhere else to go. "We were very upset and frustrated that they closed the class," she said. "My son doesn't really have another option. [The Education Ministry] admitted that. So he's been home for the last month." Sadnat Shiluv's principal Noah Mendelbaum said she believed the real reason the PDD class wasn't approved by the ministry is because the ministry intends to shut down the school entirely. Mendelbaum said the ministry doesn't believe Sadnat Shiluv should act like a crutch for regular local area schools that can't handle their special education students. "If we wouldn't open the program, then the other schools would have to make more of an effort, and they (the government) won't have to pay for two schools," she said. Shaked denied allegations that the ministry wants to close Sadnat Shiluv, but said the school shouldn't recruit any more of its students from Jerusalem. The Education Ministry has agreed to sponsor a new haredi school for children with autism within the Jerusalem municipality. But Hochbaum was still hoping to send her child to Sadnat Shiluv, whose program she called "a miraculous solution." "It's a very unique school that doesn't exist anywhere else in the country. It's a beautiful, beautiful program."


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