One of the Girls

I remember Danielle Magady as a tiny kindergartner whose broad smile arced across her face.

I met her and her parents, Terry and Holly, 10 years ago when I wrote one of my first stories for The Journal on developmentally disabled children in Jewish day schools.

Danielle was, at that point, the poster child for the relatively new practice known as inclusion, which places developmentally challenged students full time into regular classrooms. The theory is that inclusion gives children with special needs a better education, while also developing their range of skills to function in the larger society.

In the fall of 1995, the Magadys brought their daughter to Yeshiva Ohr Eliyahu, a new Orthodox Jewish day school set on a large, flat pad of land in Baldwin Hills. They knew that public schools had options for a child born with Down syndrome, but the Magadys, who are Orthodox, wanted Danielle to have a Jewish education.

They assumed they’d have to argue their point with the school’s young principle, Rabbi Shlomo Goldberg. But the rabbi didn’t hesitate for a moment.

“I felt we’re a Jewish school,” he told me last week. “And being Jewish means you reach out to everyone who’s a Jew and let them have a Jewish education.” Danielle entered a kindergarten class of six, in a school of 200 students.

Although The Journal has written about inclusion and special-needs students over the years, I pretty much forgot about Danielle, until her father called me last month. “I thought you might want to know what happened,” he said. “Ten years later.”

Last week, I met with the Magadys in a small utility room off the auditorium at Ohr Eliyahu.

When they enrolled Danielle, her parents didn’t know what to expect. Though some studies suggest that inclusion is effective in some settings, no research had examined Jewish schools, and just a handful of families had enrolled their special-needs children at Los Angeles-area day schools.

“It’s not been easy for sure,” Holly said. “We always said we’ll take it year by year, as long as she’s learning. We couldn’t envision what it would look like.”

From kindergarten to third grade, Danielle faced significant social as well as academic challenges. Because the school is small, both parents are loathe to identify specific examples, but they say there were hurt feelings and tears.

“Let’s say it was bumpy,” Holly said.

What’s more precisely clear is that the process took the proverbial village. Early on, the Magadys met Carol Faucett, an inclusion coordinator who served as a constant adviser. The Etta Israel organization, which assists families with developmentally challenged children, also helped. Faucett trained some 16 young women, who over the years served as full-time aids to Danielle in class, and held weekly meetings with them. She held monthly meetings with teachers, administrators and the Magadys to work out problems and set realistic goals; she put out fires.

When Terry wanted to chastise a classmate for teasing Danielle, Faucett corrected his phrasing. “The lesson wasn’t that teasing a person like Danielle is wrong, it was that teasing anyone is wrong,” he said.

Faucett, who isn’t Jewish, was later hired as an educational consultant to the Orthodox day school.

“This woman changed the face of inclusion in this city for the Jewish community,” Holly said.

For inclusion to succeed, Faucett helped teachers modify their curriculum. Danielle was able to miss a class on Prophets to study up on Torah. Her Hebrew lessons focused more on speaking and reading than on more difficult Rashi Hebrew. She focused especially on social skills.

“Carol told us the world will always be moving too quickly for people like Danielle,” Holly said. “We needed to prepare her for that world.”

Inclusion shouldn’t be like the show “Survivor,” said Goldberg, the principal. “You don’t parachute a kid in and hope they don’t get voted out.”

In first grade Danielle learned to sit straight, eyes focused on the teacher and to listen and respond appropriately. The academic skills followed the social skills, but emotional hurdles persisted.

“There were times when Danielle felt lonely and felt left out,” Faucett told me later, by phone. In those cases, Faucett brought together Danielle and her classmates. “She would tell a girl, ‘I wish you would call me on the weekend.'” The girl would say what makes her uncomfortable, and Danielle would learn to adjust her behavior.

Faucett said inclusion works best when it doesn’t put extra burdens on the teachers, compromise the learning of other children, or disrupt the classroom.

Even then, it is no panacea. Some children will not respond, she said. And the cost can be prohibitive. The Magadys estimate they spent an additional $20,000 per year on an inclusion coordinator, aids and other expenses not including tuition and outside therapies.

Although state law provides for public school districts, such as Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), to pay for some inclusion services in private schools, this funding is not automatic and usually goes to schools that specialize in treating disabilities and not, for example, Jewish day schools. “No one should expect getting help from LAUSD,” Terry said.

The demands on the parents’ time are enormous as well. Danielle’s education became almost a full-time job for the couple, who also have two younger boys.

But the Magadys are convinced the payoff extended beyond their daughter. Terry’s devotion to Ohr Eliyahu inspired him to raise almost $200,000 for the school when it faced bankruptcy in 1998.

“His efforts kept the school afloat that year,” Goldberg said.

Terry said he had no choice.

“If the school closed,” he said, “where would Danielle go?”

And the hours Terry spent litigating his claims for financial assistance from LAUSD led him to change the focus of his practice from real estate law to eldercare and disability law, which he says has been more rewarding, personally and financially. “Things happen for a reason,” he said.

After an hour of talking with the Magadys, a flurry of girlish voices outside interrupted us. Holly Magady jumped up and opened the door. Two teenage girls rushed in. Both wore their school uniforms, a burgundy polo shirt and long black skirt. One of them broke into a huge arc of smile: It was Danielle.

She is maybe 5-feet tall, with smooth olive skin and an enviable mane of shiny black hair. In the first few moments, I took in her physical symptoms of Down syndrome, but that impression is fleeting. Danielle is effusive, eager and unabashed. I asked her what she liked about school. She listed friends, gymnastics, handball, dancing.

I asked her for highlights of her school year, and Danielle told me this story: A month ago, she was sitting at home alone on Shabbat when the doorbell rang. She opened the door, and there stood all five of her classmates. “They just all busted in,” she smiled. The girls spent the rest of the day talking and playing ping-pong. “She’s just like another person in the class,” her friend Shira Richards said. “She really isn’t different.”

Ohr Eliyahu’s graduation ceremony will take place June 19. “It’s going to be a 10-hanky affair,” Holly said. Each girl will deliver a speech. Terry Magady faxed me a copy of the one Danielle wrote.

“I have learned a lot of things here at Ohr Eliyahu,” Danielle will say, “and I want to share what I have learned with young children. I would especially like to teach young children in the community who have Down syndrome, like me. I want them to have opportunities to be included in the Jewish community just as I have been. With [God’s] help, I will also be able to make a big difference in other children’s lives, and I will show them that despite the challenges they face, they can have courage and faith in [God] and do extraordinary things.”

This month, many of our daughters, sons and grandchildren become graduates. Not all of them are bound for Harvard; not all of them will be the next Einstein or Spielberg. The question of how we educate those with lesser abilities, different abilities and unusual challenges says a great deal about our true qualities as a society and as a people.

“You get that experience once in your life,” said Tzafi Ashram, Danielle’s Hebrew teacher. “It really affected me. Not as a Hebrew teacher, but as a person.”

Goldberg said that having Danielle as a classmate all these years made his students “kinder, more tolerant, more self-reflective.”

“Look,” the rabbi told me, sighing deeply at the end of another long day. “Schools like ours deal with smart kids from good families. They’re going to be fine. I’m less concerned with how much they know than with what kind of people they’ll be.”

Goldberg paused, looking for words: “I guess the highest praise I could give Danielle is, she’s one of the girls in the class.”