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January 31, 2015 / 11 Shevat, 5775
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A Tight Squeeze For The School With A Big Heart

The sounds of summer echo through the tight hallway and past the front door that leads to the parking lot connecting the trailers and storefront school in a strip mall in Lakewood, New Jersey. The artwork of young children hangs prominently next to teachers’ educational posters. Inside, the teachers boast proudly of the progress of their students.

SCHI - the School for Children with Hidden Intelligence - is not your average backyard or even your average strip-mall summer camp. Beyond SCHI’s nondescript façade lies a heartwarming experience.

One of the teachers spoke about the progress of a student who has Pervasive Developmental Disorder, or PDD. The boy was unable to connect to the outside world. He could not make eye contact or relate to anyone else. He was essentially trapped in solitude and could not play with the therapists or the other children.

“Every day,” the teacher said, “we’d work on play. Every day we’d work on eye contact. [The teachers and therapists] didn’t give up.” After months of dedicated work, of numerous baby steps, the child finally made eye contact, opening him up to the world.

This is the type of progress regularly celebrated at the school whose upbeat name reflects the personalities of the people involved.

“Eight years ago, Rabbi Osher Eisenmann searched for a school for his own special-needs son,” said Sorah Gorelick, director of public relations. “After not finding the right one, Rabbi Eisenmann opened SCHI in 1995. Starting out as a small class, it has grown to a school of close to one hundred students with over fifty students on the waiting list.”

SCHI long ago outgrew its facilities. On my tour there, I walked through one of the ubiquitous back lots in the area, to the therapy center housed in one of two trailers. From the cheery voices and smiling faces, it seemed the therapists were unaware of the cramped quarters. The one computer is located in an area barely large enough for the therapist and student to squeeze in and to get to work.

Rivky Berger wants only the best for her son Yaakov. That is why she surveyed other schools for children with special needs in the New Jersey area before sending him to SCHI. “I checked out other schools,” she told me, “but came out devastated and crying. Kids were strapped in, facing walls. There was no talking, laughter, or action. And that was supposed to be one of the better schools.”

“SCHI,” Mrs. Berger conceded, “is not like walking into your standard school. You’ll hear kids singing, you’ll see an aide combing a child’s hair, making sure her part is straight. They have minimal facilities and make do on personality. There is such warmth and so much caring. There is such a personal connection, the kids feel it and respond to it.”

While SCHI serves children with a broad range of handicaps, its programs are highly individualized and innovative – always evolving with the children’s needs and the parents’ ideas. The staff is composed of men and women who clearly care for the children, want to help them grow, and work with them to overcome limitations.

In one of the trailers, where therapy is administered, a young boy hid in a snug yellow covering. The therapist exercised his arms and legs while he rolled around. When I asked about this particular type of therapy, the therapist smiled and said, “He made it up. Just a few minutes ago, this boy was acting wild and not cooperating with the other kids. When it was his time for therapy, he showed me what he wanted to do and we found that it calmed him.”

The therapist explained that sometimes children seek their own therapy, feeling instinctively what works. It’s important to listen.

SCHI is listening to the community. School officials are aware that the school’s location and size are inadequate for its needs. According to Mrs. Gorelick, “the necessity of a proper facility has become an emergency.”

The problem is financial. The school supplements its partial government funding with only one fundraising event - an annual dinner attended by, among others, the governor of New Jersey. SCHI has managed to maximize its $3 million annual budget with top of the line teachers and curriculum and bottom of the line facilities and location.

After having to squeeze into the minuscule spaces of the storefront and two trailers in the parking lot, the school finally found a location on which to build a new facility. Upon receiving a land grant from Lakewood Township, SCHI in May started building a $10 million, 54,000 sq. ft. facility that must conform to federal regulations and requirements necessary to give these children the best possible care.

The school, however, no longer has the funds to go on with the building. The contractor, cognizant of the lack of funds, has stopped construction. After months of clearing out land, SCHI’s new facility is yet another lot.

The difficulty in raising adequate funds actually stems in part from Rabbi Eisenmann’s unrelenting integrity, boundless loyalty, and dedication to the students and their families. Rabbi Eisenmann – whose warm face and modest posture gives away the answer to the question of what kind of person would build a school for very dependent children with almost no financial backing - stands firmly on his belief that taking care of students properly means interacting and
working with their parents.

While SCHI’s service to its students is what makes it a great school, it is SCHI’s dedication to, and understanding of, parents that brings it its uniqueness. SCHI has implemented a parent and family support program that includes the availability of various social workers and therapists to work with parents and families who find it difficult dealing with the complex needs of a special child in the family.

It is unlikely that anyone visiting SCHI will not be overcome with a desire to cry. The constant challenges faced by the students, coupled with the consistent warmth of the teachers and staff, is enough to bring tears to anyone’s eyes. 

About the Author: Shoshana Batya Greenwald recently received a master's degree in decorative arts, material culture and design history from Bard Graduate Center. She is the collections manager at Kleinman Family Holocaust Educational Center (KFHEC) and a freelance writer.

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