Despite a range of ages and disabilities that hinder ordinary classroom learning, the children gathered in a classroom at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth go about their tasks in an atmosphere of hushed, intense concentration.
They are tackling puzzles and challenges, on computers and paper, quite unlike ordinary class work. The students — from third grade through to 10th — are all working with the Arrowsmith Program, an intensive teaching system designed to strengthen dysfunctional areas of the brain through targeted, cognitive exercises.
The participants have been assessed in the normal to high IQ range, but with disabilities that block their progress even with special education support.
“I got 84 percent,” one student tells the teacher, Rose Kandl, with a proud grin. She gives him a high five, and sends him back to his regular classes. Her tone is warm but unmistakably no-nonsense.
“I expect them to do the very best they can,” she said, “and the kids know I won’t accept less than that.”
Kandl heads up the program. A first-grade teacher with 10 years’ experience, she underwent three weeks’ intensive training and has had additional training since then. She has two assistants, Yosefa Brown and Alice Hall.
A girl, wide-eyed but reserved, is taken aside to play Go Fish as a refresher, before tackling her next exercise. Rewards are a big part of the picture, including clear-cut scores for each activity and treats like stickers and snacks. For Netanel Ben-Haim, at least part of the reward comes at home.
“I read long chapter books now,” he told a visitor. “I couldn’t do that before.”
Another student’s father sent the school a photo he took of his daughter surreptitiously reading in bed with a flashlight. He and they were delighted with her “transgression.”
‘The demand was there’
The Arrowsmith Program was started in 1978 by Canadian school psychologist Barbara Arrowsmith Young, who as a child read and wrote backward. Driven by her research findings that much educational intervention was useless or even counterproductive, she set about developing a new approach.
At its core is the concept of neuroplasticity, the brain’s potential for change, recovery, and rejuvenation. Armed with the growing body of research, she and her team have identified 19 different cognitive areas and have developed exercises to address each one of them, improving verbal and mathematical reasoning and conceptual understanding.
The system is now in use in 32 schools across North America — almost all private, many Christian, and even more Jewish. Aside from the JEC, two other Jewish schools in New Jersey — one in Bergen County and one in Monmouth — now offer it.
JEC associate dean Rabbi Eliyahu Teitz championed introduction of the program into his school. He told NJJN the initial request came from a Jewish family from West Orange whose son was attending a Catholic school in Succasunna because it offered Arrowsmith.
“The school was very accommodating with him,” Teitz said, “but they really wanted him to be in a Jewish environment.”
“At the first open meeting to discuss it, we expected a handful of families. We got 50. There was no doubt that the demand was there,” he said.
Adopting Arrowsmith forced the school to adjust its commitment to offering financial aid to students who need it. The only way to cover the $10,000-per-student cost of the program was to charge in full, with no scholarships, in addition to the regular tuition. The company allows a maximum of 12 students per class.
In 2008, the JEC launched its first Arrowsmith class. A number of those students are finishing this semester, and graduating back to full-time mainstream classes in the fall.
Most have come to the JEC from other schools in the region. As Teitz pointed out, few Jewish schools have enough students of their own to sustain an Arrowsmith program. With some students moving on, they have room to accept more into next year’s program (see sidebar).
The students spend half their periods in the Arrowsmith room, missing half their Judaic studies and half their general studies classes. They can be in the program from one to four years.
Asked about that lost lesson time, Kandl replied, “Without this, they wouldn’t have gotten anything at all. When they go back to full-time classes, they catch up quite quickly.”
The results vary, but there are enough reports of children going from a failing performance to A-plus results to have inspired the current cohort of parents. Kandl’s own son, a student in the first year of the JEC program, was a case in point. She said it transformed his academic trajectory, and he has done fine ever since.
Recognition for Arrowsmith is coming in from various sources, including praise in Brain School, a recently published book by Howard Eaton. He makes it clear this is no quick fix. He writes, “Neuroplasticity does not occur without significant active engagement over a lengthy period of time…. It takes resilience and diligence to improve.”
Kandl acknowledged that the program is extremely demanding, and requires commitment from all involved. “But once the kids begin to feel how they’re changing, and their parents see what is happening, that gives them the motivation to keep going,” she said.