Learning Leadership, Life Skills, Love At South Florida Jewish Academy

South Florida Jewish Academy is a school where every student matters


Learning Leadership, Life Skills, Love  At South Florida Jewish Academy

by Tzipora Reitman

October 10, 2019

They come from public schools, day schools, and yeshivahs, from homeschool and from no school. Fewer than half have diagnosed disabilities. Others are academically gifted, but socially challenged. Many are anxious or discouraged. And Baila Gansburg, principal of South Florida Jewish Academy (SFJA), believes in each of them.

“In my interview, the first thing Morah Baila asked me was, ‘Are you ready to be a leader?’” says Nachi Granat, 15. “It was a weird welcome, but it showed me that she cared. I was happy to finally be in a school where people cared about me.” Nachi went from being a disruptive youth who fought with his classmates at his previous school to being elected school president of SFJA.

SFJA is a Montessori-inspired inclusion school, where students with diagnosed disabilities learn side by side with mainstream students, many of whom were unsuccessful elsewhere. Its founders believe that when children needing special education partner with typical learners, everyone benefits. Each student has an individualized curriculum, based on their academic level and unique learning style.

The school offers an environment of love and support that has radically transformed their students’—and by extension, their families’—lives. Its record of success draws curious parents from surrounding counties searching for the right school for their child, and more than a dozen families have relocated from other states or countries to enroll their children.

Samantha Gordon, 23, came to SFJA from a public school, where she dreaded every day. “All I could think about was, how will I be humiliated today? I was behind in reading and math. My math teacher insulted me in front of the class and made me feel so stupid.” The only career she could envision was modeling, since she couldn’t foresee the possibility of ever developing any other skills.

At SFJA, Samantha became class president, and her newfound confidence prompted her to turn her energy to her studies, to graduate high school, and then to pursue a college degree in special education. “I learned so much about children with abilities that are different from my own,” she said of her years as a student at SFJA, that it became the seed of her own life dream. Today, her dedication to advocate for children with disabilities serves to motivate her to work hard and keep developing her capacities.

In a sweet turn of fate, SFJA—a school where mistakes are accepted rather than vilified—was actually founded “by mistake.” In 2007, Chabad emissaries to Coconut Creek, Rabbi Yossi and Baila Gansburg, bought a property with the intention of expanding their preschool. They were soon approached by parents of children with special needs whose school had closed, asking if they would consider founding a school for their children.

They accepted the challenge, launching SFJA with four students. In 2014, they upgraded to a 33,000-square-foot campus on the site of a former private technological school. Today, SFJA serves seventy children from preschool through high school in a fully equipped, first-rate facility with state-of-the-art science labs, art and music studios, a gym with a rock climbing wall, and North America’s first sensory Snoezlen room.

Several members of the school’s advisory board struggled themselves as children with undiagnosed disabilities. Board member Jack Miller sees infinite good in what SFJA is accomplishing. “I have dyslexia,” he says, “and if I had had the opportunity to go to school in such a loving, caring environment, my childhood would have been very different.”

Studying traditional Jewish values and Hebrew language are vital parts of the curriculum, empowering students to explore and strengthen their Jewish identity in an environment conducive for such learning.

“I never thought I would go to yeshivah to learn and grow spiritually,” says Avinoam Freedman, who graduated from SFJA last year and now studies in a yeshivah in Israel. “After yeshivah, I’m going to college to launch my career. I owe this to my best friend and principal, Morah Baila, the most loving person I know.”

Another recent graduate, Avraham Moshe, now studies software engineering in college and works for an online book exchange company. “SFJA was the first school I attended that nurtured my skills and interests,” he says. “When we were learning about the Mishkan [tabernacle], my teacher encouraged me to use graphic design to create a model of the Mishkan. This kept my interest and boosted my confidence. I wasn’t ‘dumb’ or a ‘problem,’ as other teachers had labeled me. I just needed the right encouragement.”

At a time when young people around the country, not to mention in countries around the world, are struggling with ever-growing desperation stemming from emotional issues, low self-esteem, traumatic experience, and family dysfunction, SFJA serves as a light. It is a school where challenges and challenging behaviors are invited into the fuller conversation about a young person’s whole development. 

“I came here broken and full of pain, but SFJA put me together,” Julie Benson, 15, says. “I was in a bad place. I was disrespectful, and felt ashamed, and scared. When I realized that the teachers were there to help me, not find fault, I began to embrace morals and values and break through my insecurities.”

Parents are overjoyed to find a school that works with their children’s individual learning styles. “After finishing eighth grade, Nachi needed a fresh start,” his mother, Shayna Granat, says. “He needed electives like music and computers, and he needed personalized attention. Baila took him under her wing, and she has high expectations.”

“I feel more like a leader now,” says Nachi. “I learned a lot of life skills, like how to read other people’s expressions. The school even trusted me to run a Sukkot program.”

SFJA has earned numerous accreditations and strong community support. The Jewish Federation of Broward County has supported SFJA since 2012. Barbara Levin, Director of Allocations, Grants, and Governance, says, “The Federation is committed to ensuring that every Jewish child in Broward County has the full opportunity to participate in the Jewish community.” This year, the Federation also helped fund the replacement of an elevator to enable children of all abilities to benefit from the school.

And, last year, the Eleanor M. and Herbert D. Katz Family Foundation awarded SFJA a grant to incorporate electronic devices in the classroom to support instruction.

The school is a valuable community resource, not only for its own students, but also for special education and occupational therapy majors at Lynn University and Keiser University, who bolster their classroom training with supervised practicum experience. 

In its quest for continuous improvement, SFJA works with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education, YACHAD, and other agencies that provide oversight, professional development, and planning.

For the staff, families, youth, board members and donors involved in the wider SFJA community, the school is a blossoming of the fruits of many efforts. Suzanne Horowitz, whose philanthropic efforts helped launch SFJA back in 2007, says she has seen “miracles over the years.” She still remembers listening to a keynote speech at SFJA’s annual dinner by a young man who had arrived at SFJA only a few years before, utterly non-verbal. 

“Being involved with SFJA and seeing where my charity goes,” Suzanne says, “has made me realize my purpose in life.”

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of people interviewed for this article

 

 

 

 

 

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