Community Integrated Education in Israel
Children with special needs are entitled to the same rights as children without special needs: to experience a full life and realise their potential to the fullest. They require not only professional support, but also the support of their community. Educational activities undertaken jointly by children in special education and mainstream education promote respectful integration into the community. They build a sense of capability, self-image and self-confidence, reduce anxiety, positively impact the behaviour of children in special education in general, and prepare them for a more independent life. The community at large also benefits from the interaction by becoming more accepting and inclusive.
The main aims of the initiative are to:
- develop and conduct educational activities for children and adolescents with medium- to high functioning autism (learners in a special education school), which take place alongside children from a mainstream school, based on a model of integration into their surrounding community.
- teach learners all the skills necessary to fully realise their potential in all the daily functions that they will require as adults, and develop their motor skills, where necessary.
- provide learners with the opportunity to experience being part of a team – a sense of belonging and respect for others and integration into social circles.
- build a sense of self-confidence, self-capability and independence and provide a setting in which learners with special educational needs can practice socially‑acceptable behaviour.
- build the ability to cope with difficulty and failure.
- promote openness, acceptance and respect for learners in special education among the learners from mainstream schools and the community at large.
Alumot Or (‘Rays of Light’) is a social non-profit philanthropic organisation which is expanding the scope of programmes delivered to children studying in special education frameworks. Its Community Integrated Education programme is being implemented in a community in southern Israel. It revolves around learners with medium- to high-functioning autism in special education schools.
At present, the programme participants include 34 adolescents in grades 7 to 10. The diverse learner population comes from 16 regional and local councils with varied ethnicities, cultural backgrounds and levels of religious observance. The programme is supported by a professional staff of around 40 special education teachers, emotional therapists, paramedical therapists and assistants. Alumot Or plans to expand the programme following an evaluation and the introduction of any necessary modifications.
Children with special educational needs are often excluded due to difficulties they encounter. These include:
- establishing and maintaining social transactions;
- executing tasks that are mundane to children in general;
- engaging in new activities.
Some children, particularly those on the autism spectrum, exhibit behaviours such as rocking back and forth, finger flicking, motor rigidity and more. Such behaviours encumber these children when they attempt to perform motor functions and blend into general society. Their peers in mainstream education frameworks, and even adults, sometimes find it difficult to accept these children, which results in alienation. The Community Integrated Education programme attempts to overcome these challenges.
Alumot Or has been operating in six special education schools throughout Israel for the last six years. It conceptualises, develops and implements Community Integrated Education programmes, and makes them accessible to the target population as an integral part of the special education school activities. The schools place an emphasis on communal life as the key to a healthy and good life for all its members.
Alumot Or aims to support its learners in realising their potential. As such, it is in the process of creating a new reality in the field of special education – one that integrates learners in special education into their community and environment. It is based on the concept that learners in special education are entitled to the same rights as children without special needs. These rights include:
- experiencing life to the fullest possible extent, despite challenges they face;
- taking part in making decisions about their own lives;
- having a sense of control over their choices;
- feeling autonomous with respect to different aspects of their lives;
- being free to integrate in their community and take part in its activities.
Such integration, when based on a comprehensive programme and supported by professionals in all relevant disciplines, contributes to the self-development of children in special education and, importantly, to society as a whole.
This worldview acknowledges the relationship between individuals and their environment. Each child feels a part of the social life around them. They have the opportunity to develop a positive self-image, a unique voice and a sense of belonging. They can face challenges that, with the necessary support, will help them learn and grow. The approach developed from the necessity to appropriately respond to learners with special needs. Therefore, a comprehensive programme, tailored to meet the needs of each participant and their family and incorporating a variety of activities, was developed.
Importantly, the Community Integrated Education programmes have also proven to be beneficial to the mainstream education learners and the communities surrounding the school. By providing opportunities to meet and take part in enjoyable activities together, learners and community members of all ages form interactions and friendships with the learners with special needs. They recognise that they are essentially very alike – human beings that enjoy friendships, being part of a group and various activities, and accept them as valued members of the community. They also report that they gain a great deal from the interaction with the learners with special needs, feel a deep sense of fulfilment as a result of their encounters, and a sense of commitment to the blended community. The learners with special educational needs not only learn life skills and practice socially-accepted behaviour, but also build their self-confidence and look more optimistically to the future.
These encounters – both between special education and mainstream learners, and between the learners and the members of the community at large – have proven to be an effective vehicle for promoting not only inclusion, but also Alumot Or’s other core values: excellence, genuine partnership, initiative and optimism.
Development of community integrated educational activities
Alumot Or’s multidisciplinary team of special education teachers, emotional therapists, paramedical therapists and assistants invest a great deal of thought into developing integrated activities which meet the specific needs of the learners. These activities take into account where the learners experience hardship and where they need to improve, while keeping in mind the need for social interactions, which are highly important for the learners’ social integration.
Developing the specialised programmes presents a challenge, but one Alumot Or is eager to meet. Its dedicated team of professionals invest much effort and care into tailoring programmes for each and every learner.
Before any activity, the team co-ordinates expectations and ensures the necessary training and support. Special emphasis is placed on fair and respectful attitudes of all involved in the programme at all times.
Heavy emphasis is also placed on conceptualising, developing and implementing Community Integrated Education programmes, in which special education and mainstream learners take part together.
One of the special education schools is Benjamin Rothman Eshel Hanassi School in southern Israel. At the school, joint activities take place with learners from the mainstream Eshel Hanassi school, within a community setting:
- joint classes – each special education class at Benjamin Rothman Eshel Hanassi School is paired with a class from the mainstream school. The two classes meet twice a month for a joint lesson dedicated specifically to developing social skills;
- a study programme which allows learners from both schools to study together, taking into consideration their respective levels, capabilities and areas of interest;
- joint study groups for learners that will take matriculation exams;
- working in the vegetable garden and caring for animals in the small petting zoo;
- cultural activities in which learners from both schools take part;
- extra-curricular activities, such as group bicycle riding;
- group social therapy for special and regular education students;
- sessions explaining autism and its expressions;
- short trips within the framework of lessons, promoting national identity, love of nature, etc;
- special activities, including sports, planting on Arbor Day, masquerade parties on Purim (Jewish holiday in which this is the custom);
- once a year, learners from both schools take a day trip together.
Group bicycle riding
To support the programme participants to develop skills that will broaden the scope of their activities, Alumot Or’s multidisciplinary team develops special teaching and training methods. These include developing activities to practice motor skills, which many children on the autism spectrum find difficult. These activities enable the children to successfully, safely and enjoyably improve these skills.
A new group bicycle riding activity launched at the beginning of the 2020/21 school year at Benjamin Rothman Eshel Hanassi special education school, alongside the mainstream Eshel Hanassi school. The learners are divided into mixed groups (special and mainstream education; boys and girls) according to their motor abilities and how mentally prepared the middle- to high-functioning autistic learners are to engage in this group activity.
Once a week, the learners ride bicycles provided by the school on trails in the region’s open areas. They are escorted by adult counsellors, and stop from time to time to enjoy nature, learn about their environment (plants, wildlife, etc.), and – mainly – to engage in conversation with their group members.
The group bicycle riding activities aim to develop a sense of self-confidence and self‑capability among the learners in special education as they cope with their motor and communication challenges. They enjoy a fun group activity and build positive emotions and respect for nature.
Who worked on and sustained the initiative?
To achieve the maximal benefit from its programmes – for its learners in special education as well as the communities they live in – Alumot Or operates in full transparency and partners with stakeholders in each of the regional councils where its schools are situated.
A steering committee includes representatives of the Alumot Or special education school, the mainstream school whose learners take part in the activities, the regional council’s education department, other relevant branches of the regional council (e.g. the welfare department) and community members.
The steering committee convenes on a monthly basis to review and discuss programmes currently being implemented. They track the programmes’ progress and development, receive feedback and discuss any issues that may arise. Specific members handle specific aspects of the collaboration. A co-ordinator is responsible for aspects associated with shared communal life.
Smaller meetings of the heads of relevant branches and activities take place every two weeks.
This operational model and the transparency in which the programme conducts its activities are highly conducive to successful co-operation and support positive results. Importantly, they also create an atmosphere in which stakeholders are happy to expand the scope of co-operation to additional activities.
When did the initiative development take place?
Inclusivity and Community Integrated Education have been the focus of Alumot Or for the last six years.
The bicycle programme specifically was launched in October 2019, and is on-going. As with all its programmes, Alumot Or continually collects feedback from all stakeholders to draw conclusions and, if necessary, modify and enhance the programme. The aim is to accumulate and disseminate knowhow, and build a model that can be duplicated for the benefit of learners with special educational needs in other communities.
The results of the community integrated education activities are apparent on a daily basis. The learners in special education have gained more confidence and have developed their social skills through engagement with peers from the mainstream school and interactions with the community, in which they feel respected and treated as equals. Their increased self-confidence and sense of self-capacity also encourage them to take part in additional joint activities.
In the recently-introduced group bicycle riding activities, learners who were anxious and fearful of taking part in this challenging physical activity now await it with anticipation each week.
Learners who have experienced failure in other activities have developed a sense of self‑ability as a result of their success in this programme, which is also reflected in their learning and behaviour.
Alumot Or has produced a video showcasing the impact of the work of the organization on the schools’ management, staff, students and families of the students lives.
The programme’s results and impact on the learners in special education and on the community as a whole have been evaluated internally, by Benjamin Rothman Eshel Hanassi special education school professionals, those in the mainstream school and the regional council.
Midot will perform external evaluation in the near future. Midot is a non-profit organisation (NPO) that strives to promote effectiveness and impact as the main criterion for social investors and for NPO leaders by rating NPOs and producing sector analysis reports.
Based on the positive results of the community integrated education at Benjamin Rothman Eshel Hanassi and its surrounding community, Alumot Or plans to expand its activities to include additional programmes in the community for learners from special and mainstream education to take part in together.
The programmes currently under consideration and/or development include:
- additional sporting activities, including team sports in which each team will include both special education and mainstream learners, following the success of the bicycling programme;
- learning and nature – flora, fauna and habitats, in nature walks near to Eshel Hanassi school and in day trips further afield. The learners in special education have shown interest in these topics when shown plants, insects and animal tracks during the bicycling trips;
- food preparation, such as making sandwiches for a picnic, cutting fruit and vegetables, etc., under the supervision of Alumot Or staff;
- leisure activities, such as going to the cinema, theatre, etc. Learners in special education rarely have the opportunity to engage in leisure activities, which would be highly beneficial for their present and future well-being.
It is important to note that in the programmes currently being conceptualised, Alumot Or intends to introduce components that are important to the development of real-life skills that the learners will rely on in adulthood. This includes advance planning, which would entail discussing and practicing, for example:
- for the food preparation activity:
- making a list of produce and ingredients that need to be bought;
- evaluating their cost;
- verifying that the necessary items (cutting boards, plates, etc.) are available.
- for the leisure activity:
- checking the price of the cinema/theatre tickets;
- determining how to get to the venue and back – bus/taxi/special transport;
- appropriate behaviour in a cinema/theatre.
Alumot Or’s aim, as stated above, is to expand its reach to more and more communities, and to build proven models that can be shared and duplicated throughout the country – first at other Benjamin Rothman schools across Israel and in the communities surrounding them, then in additional communities and, ultimately, internationally.