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.