South Florida Jewish Academy

(Published in October, 2013)

south-fl-jewish-academy_forwebsiteCoconut Creek – Baila Gansburg was preparing to open a Jewish preschool when opportunity came knocking at a site in Coconut Creek that used to house a school for children with special needs.

“Parents came and begged us to reopen a special needs school,” Gansburg recalled. The former school, which educated children with challenges, including autism, attention deficit disorder, auditory processing disorder and dyslexia, recently had closed its doors for financial reasons. Chabad Lubavitch of Coconut Creek and West Pompano Beach, where Gansburg’s husband, Yossi Gansburg, is the rabbi, purchased the 5,500-square-foot, 2½-acre property to serve its community’s youngest members with plans of Gansburg running the preschool. The parents of the former school, however, couldn’t bear to let it go.

While Baila Gansburg was no stranger to education, she had never worked with special needs children. The idea, she said frankly, was overwhelming. So back to work on the preschool she went. Or so she thought.

“After saying no for six months, they kept coming back and said, ‘please try,’” Gansburg said, adding that sometimes the parents brought their children with them to make their pleas. “They said no one else would take their kids.” She no longer had the will to say no and found the courage instead to say yes. “It was their persistence and the fact their kids had nowhere else to go,” Gansburg said. “I said, ‘Well, I’ll try it for a year.’ And we have been here ever since.”

Now in its seventh year, the school has gone from a dozen students that first year to 50 enrolled in the 2012-13 school year. Of those, 13 were Step Up scholars. The school also accepts the McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities, but Gansburg knew Step Up could help those students who had special challenges and didn’t meet the criteria for that program. And while tuition for the 2012-13 school year was $18,995, Gansburg says she works with families to bridge the tuition gap because she knows the children who are there really need her school’s environment to succeed.

Once Gansburg committed to a special needs school, she hired professionals and consultants who possessed the knowledge she didn’t, and she started educating herself by taking classes and traveling to centers around the nation that cater to children with special needs. Now she has an 18-member staff of both full- and part-time employees, including teachers, aides and a therapist. “It definitely took a turn into something I never expected,” she said.

The school became much more than Gansburg imagined. “It became a beautiful school where the kids are totally integrated,” she said. The student body has changed from all children with special challenges to half who are “typical students,” as she describes them.

“The kids who don’t have special needs typically learn to respect those who do, and it is a beautiful thing,” she said.

At South Florida Jewish Academy, all students have individualized curricula, and students of different grade levels share the same classrooms. “In most schools they have tutors who push to catch up students who are behind, and we have tutors who push them ahead,” Gansburg said.

Gansburg said her school has been so successful in such a short time that more parents are registering children with minor learning disabilities or who just need the benefits of a smaller classroom. Either way, the results for their students are expected to be positive. “We don’t allow the word can’t in our school because if you say can’t you’re not trying,” Gansburg said.

“We turn can’t into can.”

And it’s something her teachers take to heart as well. “What people should know about our school is that we have the ability to bring out the potential in every child whether typical or special,” said Jodi Blum, who teaches language arts and social studies. “We take children with challenges and turn their challenges into gifts.”

Devorah Schwartz drives her youngest two sons 30 miles one way from Hallandale Beach to attend the school. Her son Elimelech, or “Eli,” was getting D’s in the first grade. “My son was struggling in school terribly. He kept saying, ‘I’m stupid,’” Devorah said.

The words were something she wasn’t going to accept for Eli, who has visual perception issues and dyslexia. Devorah, who with her rabbi husband has 11 children, heard about the South Florida Jewish Academy and applied for the Step Up For Students scholarships for her two youngest boys in 2008. She’s seen improvements ever since. “Both of my sons are doing so well there,” she said.

Especially Eli, who came in reading on a first-grade level and six months later had graduated to the third-grade level. “I see him being more confident even at home,” Devorah said. “If you can’t read, that’s the end of learning anything. He is learning and is confident about trying new things. He used to say, ‘I can’t and I can’t and I can’t.’”

But, Devorah said, that phrase has disappeared from his vocabulary.

About South Florida Jewish Academy

The K-12 school has been serving children with special needs for nearly seven years. It is accredited by Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Council on Accreditation and School Improvement. It had 50 students enrolled in the 2012-13 school year, 13 of whom were Step Up scholars. Annual tuition for the 2012-13 school year was $18,995. It uses the Stanford 10 standardized test to measure academic achievement.

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The typical scholarship school

Is small in size: The average total enrollment is 161 students.

Serves mostly private-paying students: Step Up students make up an average of 30 percent of total enrollment.

Serves elementary students: About 66 percent in grades K-5.

Is faith-based: Seventy-five percent of the schools are faith-based. The 193 Catholic schools represent the largest single group.