What began twenty years ago as a support group for parents of six learning disabled children in Queens who could not find a yeshiva capable of accommodating their educational needs, has evolved into a full scale institution that not only works with its students to master academic challenges, but provides them with a Torah education as well.
The Yeshiva Education for Special Students (YESS!) is a full-scale program for children diagnosed with language processing disorders, attention difficulties and learning disabilities, including auditory or visual processing issues. Currently located in space rented from Yeshiva of Central Queens (YCQ) in the Kew Gardens Hills section of Queens, YESS! has an enrollment of thirty children ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade. Annual tuition is $24,000, with considerable fundraising done by the school’s board of trustees in order to subsidize tuition costs for all students.
“Until YESS! was started twenty years ago, there were no Jewish programs for kids with disabilities,” explained YESS! director for the last eleven years, Rabbi Yaakov Lustig, M.S. “These kids had no choice but to attend public schools, because there were no yeshivas that could provide appropriately for them. While maybe the kids could learn some skills in the public schools they attended, they were lacking normal healthy social interaction with other Jewish children.”
Neva Goldstein, one of the founding parents at YESS!, and current school president, recalls the difficulties she faced when her son Avishai was just five and relegated to public school because there was no yeshiva program that could accommodate his developmental language based disabilities.
“The only yeshiva program at the time was in New Jersey and because they had to accommodate the local parent body first we couldn’t get a placement there,” recalled Mrs. Goldstein. “The public school program tried to be accommodating of my son’s religious needs but there were still mishaps. Even though I made sure to keep him out of school on days like Halloween, they still took the kids to see Santa Claus at Kings Plaza. One day they called me, telling me they were going to McDonalds and they wanted to know what my son could eat. I was there in just five minutes to pick him up and bring him home. Just imagine. My son, in his blue velvet yarmulke with little ducks on it and his tzitzis, was going to go to McDonalds.”
Mrs. Goldstein still gets emotional when she recalls a heartbreaking conversation that took place with her son the night before he was scheduled to start kindergarten in a public school.
“Avishai was crying and I asked him what was wrong. He said to me, ‘There is no Shabbat in my school. I want to go to yeshiva.’ I promised him that if I had to turn the world upside down, he was going to a yeshiva. It is the pain in his eyes that has driven me all these years.”
The original YESS! program was housed for ten years in the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, located just across the street from the yeshiva’s current location. Today YESS!’ self-contained program offers a full range of services, with therapists providing speech, occupational and physical therapy on site, in addition to providing a complete Limudei Kodesh and General Studies curriculum. YESS! is endorsed by the Vaad Harabonim of Queens and has a permanent charter from the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, thereby incorporating it under New York State Education Law.
“We spend two to three weeks at the beginning of the school year tailoring an individual program for each student,” said Rabbi Lustig. “We use that as our bible, with individualized programs for each of our students so that we can help them develop the skills they need in order to foster independence and help them become independent learners.”
Each class at YESS! encompasses a three year age range and has anywhere from four to eight students, with a teacher to student ratio that is no greater than four to one. Students, who are high functioning, both socially and emotionally, come from all five boroughs of New York City as well as nearby Westchester, Nassau and Rockland counties. The school’s faculty includes New York State certified special educators with master’s degrees in special education and assistant teachers who are currently working on master’s degrees in special education or other related fields.
“What makes YESS! unique is that in most programs, a class can consist of a group of children, each of whom can have different issues, which makes it difficult to educate the class as a whole,” explained parent Bernice Pearlstein, whose son graduated from YESS! this past June. “Here each child is evaluated in every subject and they can be placed in different classes, either within YESS! or in YCQ, for different subjects. There is no program anywhere that allows for so much flexibility. My son gained tremendously from his two years in YESS! and will be moving on to a mainstream yeshiva next year.”
“I see YESS! as a nurturing environment, full of warmth, where the staff really focuses on the students and who they are as individuals, which enables the students to recognize the potential within themselves and allows them to grow,” commented teacher Rachel Avner. “Rabbi Lustig is so kind and involved, every student knows he is there for them. The teachers go above and beyond when it comes to nurturing their students, with many hosting shabbatons for their current and past students. Maybe it’s because of the environment created by the administration and teachers, but the students are the sweetest you will find anywhere, with one student who bakes a cake whenever a classmate has a birthday and the graduates who donate their maaser money to YESS!.”
“YESS! is different than every other program I have worked for in that the YESS! administration is extremely hands on,” added teacher Henny Hoch. “They don’t just work behind the scenes. They are always available for students and teachers alike. Instead of sitting in their offices all day, they are in our classrooms multiple times per day, making sure that each student is receiving the attention and education they need. Even after three years, YESS! continues to shock me with how far they are willing to go to accommodate and assist each parent and child.”
YESS! prides itself on the individualized attention it provides to each of its students, allowing each child to progress at their own pace. Knowing that academic difficulties go hand in hand with other issues. including organizational difficulties, problems with time management skills and social issues, the staff evaluates the whole student in order identify and remediate the key issues that are impeding the child’s academic success. State of the art technology at YESS! includes a computer lab offering specialized math and reading programs as well as Smart Boards, enabling teachers to come up with creative and exciting ways to help students master academic concepts.
YESS! maintains a close relationship with its parent body in order to achieve maximum success with each child and welcomes parent involvement, which includes inviting parents to two annual conferences to review their child’s individualized educational plan. The yeshiva also works with the local school district’s Committee on Special Education, counseling parents on related therapy services provided by the Board of Education. Many of these services, which can include physical therapy, speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and counseling, are provided on site during the school day and YESS! also works with parents to arrange the free door to door bus service which is provided by the Board of Education for all children in self-contained special education classes.
While the ultimate objective at YESS! is to completely mainstream the students into YCQ whenever possible, in some cases students are mainstreamed only for certain activities or classes, which can include lunch, recess, art, music, gym or library and some YESS! students have earned spots in the YCQ choir and on the basketball team. While some students continue on the special education track throughout their scholastic careers, others have been accepted to high schools such as North Shore Hebrew Academy, Yeshiva University High School, Darchei Torah and Magen David, with one former YESS! student graduating from Princeton with honors. Today, many early students have professional careers and families of their own, as well as being vital members of the Jewish community.
“Our students acquire a sense of self esteem here that they could never have gotten anywhere else,” reported Mrs. Goldstein. “Sometimes special needs kids are dragged through a mainstream education and they are continually met with failure. We help our students meet their challenges so that can succeed and the resulting self esteem carries through even after they leave YESS!.”
Remaining true to the ideals of its founding parents, YESS! strives to ensure that all Jewish children, even those who have learning disabilities and other difficulties, receive the Torah education that is their right.
“All of Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s children are entitled to an education and to receive true Torah chinuch,” said Rabbi Lustig. “Doesn’t every Jewish kid want to be an active participant at the Shabbos table? Without a school like YESS!, these kids would have been forced to attend public schools to get the services they require. Would they still be shomrei Torah u’mitzvos? Our students gain tremendously from our program, not just academically but socially and emotionally as well and they will go on to raise future generations of Klal Yisroel.”
Twenty years after its tenuous beginnings, Mrs. Goldstein sees YESS! as a dream come true.
“All I was looking for when we started YESS! was a rich and full Jewish educational experience, a kindergarten for my son where Uncle Moishy would be playing in the background. When we founded the school, it was such a miracle to us that it felt like the parting of the Red Sea, but we see more and more miracles happening every year. Over the years, YCQ has opened their hearts and their school to us, and hundreds of children have gone through the program and not only flourished but stayed strong in their commitment to their Jewish heritage, something that might not have happened if not for YESS!.”
For more information on YESS! contact them at 718-268-5976 or at info@YESSYeshiva.org.
Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who has written for various websites, newspapers, magazines and private clients in addition to having written song lyrics and scripts for several full scale productions. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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