Sunday, April 05, 2020

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, and in the case of Ashira, an integrated girls high school program hosted by Ateres Bais Yaakov in Monsey, truer words were never spoken.

Neither Sarah Levy, head of program, nor Bracha Cohen, the program’s director of student development, ever imagined that they would develop a transitional high school program for girls, but as teachers working in the special education department at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey the two saw a void that needed to be filled.

“At RYNJ, the school offers multiple self-contained classes where the students’ individual needs are met and they have the opportunity to join their general education peers for as much time as possible, including non-academic activities such as gym and recess,” explained Mrs. Cohen. “It met the students’ social and academic needs throughout their elementary school years.”

But for graduating students, there was one fly in the ointment.

“Every year I would witness the administrators invest hours in an attempt to find suitable high schools for these girls,” said Mrs. Cohen. “There was no appropriate high school program within the community where they could continue to succeed in a supportive setting.”

After hearing Mrs. Cohen commenting aloud that someone should create a school for the graduating eighth graders of the self-contained program, Ms. Levy suggested that they actually take the idea and run with it themselves, and with that, the roots for Ashira were planted.

“We decided to try and make it happen and to keep going until we hit a brick wall,” recalled Mrs. Cohen. “Baruch Hashem, we haven’t hit that wall yet.”

The educational component was only part of the equation for Ms. Levy and Mrs. Cohen.  Finding a school to host the program was crucial to make sure that the girls’ social needs were being met as well. After considering various options, the pair approached Rabbi Aaron Fink, dean of Monsey’s Ateres Bais Yaakov, with a meticulously researched plan for their program.

“We had an official proposal prepared with several different options of how the program could be integrated into the school,” said Mrs. Cohen. “Rabbi Fink opened it up, glanced at it and immediately stated that he understood that there was a need and he was ready to welcome the program into his school.”

Monsey rabbonim also greeted Ashira with great enthusiasm.

“The Ashira Program performs a vital service to our community, filling a gap in girls’ chinuch which is long overdue,” observed Rabbi Michel Chill, one of several individuals in Monsey who works tirelessly to ensure that girls are placed into suitable high schools that will meet their needs.

It took approximately two years to get Ashira off the ground as Ms. Levy and Mrs. Cohen worked diligently to put all the pieces in place, raising funds and hiring experienced teachers with master’s degrees in special education. They began reviewing applications of girls with specific learning needs who had the potential to thrive in a small group setting with specialized instruction. The program opened in September 2015 in Ateres with a class of six students from the tri-state area. Ashira students are enrolled in Ateres high school and take part in all extracurricular activities including school trips, the annual concert, and chesed projects and they also have the opportunity to join general education classes. Students who successfully complete the program can earn a local high school diploma or a New York State Regents diploma.

Individualized instruction plays a major role in Ashira’s academic program.

“We provide a comprehensive high school education with a focus on basic skill instruction and post-secondary transition,” said Ms. Levy. “The small class size creates a venue for successful academic achievement where each student’s strengths and weaknesses are identified in order to develop an individualized program to ensure her success.”

Hiring highly trained and experienced educators adds an extra dimension to Ashira, with teachers who go the extra mile for each and every student.

“Our staff members  possess the intuitive ability to perceive and embrace all aspects of the student, developing close relationships and fostering personal growth,” observed Ms. Levy.

Ms. Levy and  Mrs. Cohen work closely with Rabbi Fink, often consulting with him regarding the students’ progress and enlisting his expertise in the world of chinuch. The Ashira-Ateres partnership gives students the ability to learn in a way that allows them to maximize their academic achievements within a mainstream school, a major confidence booster for the girls during the sometimes tumultuous teenage years.

Teachers in Ashira and Ateres work together to design numerous opportunities, both academic and social, that give all students a chance to contribute meaningfully to their joint endeavors.

“Our students had multiple opportunities over the past year to integrate into the Ateres academic setting through joint biology lab groups, English poetry and literature units and cross-curricular activities,” said Ms. Levy.  “The girls in both classes enjoyed collaborating to share ideas and learning experiences in addition to enjoying positive social interaction.”

One Ashira mother noted that while in elementary school, her daughter did well during her time in the resource room, but the remainder of her day in the general education classroom resulted in limited success and productivity. When it came time to choose a high school, the goal was simple: finding a setting that would provide a challenge while still being conducive to educational achievement.

 “It took her time to adjust because it had been so long since she had tasted academic success,” said the mother. “But once she did she started excelling, which boosted her self-esteem tremendously.”

That extra dose of self confidence had a profound effect on the ninth grader’s life as she bloomed socially.

“She is in an environment where she doesn’t feel different than the rest of the girls,” said the mother. “It is the best of both worlds. When Ashira came along I called it a gift from Hakadosh Baruch Hu that landed in my lap.”

Incoming Ashira parent Boruch Adler was well acquainted with both Ms. Levy and Mrs. Cohen from his daughter’s academic career at RYNJ.  He looks forward to his daughter joining Ashira’s upcoming ninth-grade class.

“They recognize that every child needs to learn at a different pace and that each one has different skills,” said Adler. “Not every child fits the mold and they bring out the best in each one.”

With one successful year under their belts, Ms. Levy and Mrs. Cohen are looking forward to the upcoming school year and to welcoming both their returning tenth graders and the incoming ninth-grade class. Moshe Hirsch, whose daughter will be in tenth grade this year, noted that his daughter is looking forward to going back to school and he praised Ms. Levy and Mrs. Cohen for stepping up and creating a program that was so desperately needed.

“Before Ashira, there was no place to send a high school girl who was a typical, healthy kid who needed a little bit of extra help,” said Hirsch. “Kids like this had no chance to succeed before but now Ashira caters to these students’ needs and they feel good about themselves.”

The Hirsches have been thrilled to see their daughter gain confidence in her own abilities as she thrived academically.

“In another school she would have just gotten by but here she had the chance to shine and she did,” said Hirsch.“Sending her to Ashira was the best decision we ever made.”

For more information about Ashira visit them online at www.ashiraprogram.com or call them at 845-368-2200 x300.