Stephen Oryszczuk visits Stamford Hill’s Side By Side school
Down Stamford Hill’s aptly-named Big Hill is Side By Side, a world within the strictly Orthodox world of Haringey and Hackney.
This is a place of mixed ages (two to 19) and diverse difficulties, like blindness, deafness, Down’s Syndrome and autism. It’s all ‘Yinglish’ (Yiddish-English mix), Torah, and scary acronyms, like OT (occupational therapy), SLT (speech and language therapy), SENCO (special educational needs coordinator), PECS (picture exchange communication system) and CASPR (cloud and surface parameter retrieval). Most importantly, and more immediately, it’s a world of love.
Physically, Side-by-Side comprises a main building, a therapy block and two play areas. It’s sufficient, but not purpose-built, and not what the kids deserve. It needs constant patchwork, too (when I visited, the child safety gate outside was broken).
There are plans for a new £6million Lordship Road site, but they’ve only raised half the funds so far. The teachers say Hashem will provide. Until then, donors welcome.
In the office, the young and stunning Esther (finance and fundraising) says lots of interesting, informative things, but whenever I’m in front of such a beautiful woman, I stop paying attention and just try to look cool, a never-before-successful tactic I seem unwilling to drop.
When I finally remember I’m there to work, I see she’s updating the website with pictures of children wearing poppies. I leave the poor girl to her work. By the front door is Gerald Lebrett, the headteacher, who is meeting Mrs Junger (a SENCO) in his office. They’re talking about piloting observation days in the Nursery, which she’s worried will take up too much time.
She updates him on Shami in Early Years 1, whose language is not developing. “He’s not focusing on things,” she says. “He’s saying things irrelevant to the situation.” Next, another child is discussed. “It’s the parents’ first child and they’re in denial about the situation.” Finally, they discuss Yitzi and Pinchas, “priorities” because they’ve been here the longest. In Mrs Rumpler’s class, I meet the ‘in-betweeners,’ children who don’t have special needs but who may, for example, have delayed language development. In nursery, it’s the end of ‘free play,’ a riot of toys, rice, puzzles and food. “We get very good at tidying up,” says a teacher scooping everything into a bag. Next door is Mrs Levy’s other nursery class, who are playing outside.
The relative quiet of inside is broken as a young girl tears in through the doors, to show her friend her Matisyahu pencil case. In Sue Gerrard’s Class Two, I’m treated to a song. “If you’re happy and you know it touch your toes” is by far the favourite verse. I’m struck by the level of support, with Atara, Michelle, Feige, Bar-Sheva, Perrele and Chani all helping. It’s the same in Class Two, who later line up singing: “I can be a hero, stronger, braver… I can do anything!” One little girl seems less bothered about the meaning of the words than with dancing and waving her sign more vigorously than her neighbour. It’s just as well. It’s never too early to be competitive.
Down the corridor, in Reception, a SENCO is observing Moishe interacting with a new reward system in maths. “He’s really engaged with it,” she says, before scurrying off behind her clipboard. On the wall, a photo of Bruchi in big thick glasses stares down, reminding everyone that she should be wearing them at all times. In the past two weeks she has stopped throwing her glasses off, I’m told. It was a landmark moment. In the corridor, Rena Lichtenstein, the head of teaching and learning, talks to (another) Moishe, a teenage boy with Down’s Syndrome. “You were really good today,” she says. “You listened to what everyone said.”
Moishe is one of The Boys I meet in the afternoon making lentil soup, which they’d just learned about in Bible Studies. Claire, an English OT, and Avi, from Israel, coordinate the class. Yankler cleans the table and Moishe asks why it goes in a blender. Claire explains, then sits everyone down to talk about laying the table, asking how many bowls they need, how many spoons, and why we don’t use plates for soup etc. She gets them thinking, but not for long, because eating something you’ve just made with your mates is just too much fun. Later, I trace The Boys to a P.E. lesson, where they take to the skies via a trampoline and an irritated Polish trainer. Back in the main building, Miss Michael is teaching her Early Years 3 children about food, which sounds like a good place to start in a Jewish school. She holds up a tomato. “What’s this?” she asks. “A potato,” shouts a three-year-old so assuredly that I double-check it isn’t. She’s just finished a Sedra session, where children played parts in Bible stories. “We’ve been learning about emotions this week,” she says. “I’m thrilled, because before you came in, one of the boys recognised Anger by pointing to an angry mask. It’s a real breakthrough.”
In Yellow Class, Yossi and Eitan help Papa Bear go to sleep by fetching him blankets and singing so he nods off. On the wall, there are the six days of creation and the theme this week is space. To the side is a special area for Mechel, who has severe difficulties. Bright disco lights, vibrating tubes, music and foot spas help him sense a world he otherwise would not know. In the cloakroom, autistic friends Chavi and Chani play with the ‘Now and Next’ board, before joining the others for a video about babies. Next door Benzi, a tall boy also with severe difficulties, has just come in from outside. He is getting 1:1 support with a media-shy male teaching assistant, and after several minutes, manages to focus on the iPad. “Where is the boy hiding?” the assistant asks. Benzi’s flailing limbs don’t help him, but he eventually manages to push the right place on the screen. It’s a joyous moment.
In the main building Carrie, an SLT, is finishing a 10-minute ‘speedy speech’ session with Rachel, who is pronouncing her ‘c’s and ‘k’s as ‘t’s. Carrie tells me how today’s technology has transformed her profession, and her ability to help children such as Yehuda, who now communicates via an iPad, which lets him build sentences. Another girl is wheelchair-bound with involuntary movements, so with her it’s about eye contact, she says. A fixed gaze is a huge win. Before I know it, legions of parents arrive, so it’s time to wrap up.
Like the students, I’ve had day of learning, and now know the Makaton word for ‘turtle,’ the best way to clear a classroom in 30 seconds and am a dab hand at making paper crowns. How to conclude? I’ll let them do it. If you’re ever feeling down, go on the Side-by-Side website and watch the four-minute video called: Side By Side: An Inside View. In fact, watch it even if you’re not feeling down. I promise it will make you love life a little more.