Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Ilana Ruskay-Kidd of The Shefa School Is Helping To Change Our…

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Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Ilana Ruskay-Kidd of The Shefa School Is Helping To Change Our World

Learn to love the unpredictable. One of the things I love about working in a school is that schools are messy. When you work with children, they bring unforeseen challenges and unexpected delights every single day. This is something you can count on, and I have learned to always be prepared for the unpredictable. Of course, we all came out of Covid knowing how to live through the unplanned, but working in a school we re-learn this lesson daily!

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ilana Ruskay-Kidd.

Ilana Ruskay-Kidd is the Founder and Head of School at The Shefa School, the first Jewish community day school (grades 1–8) in the nation to serve students with language-based learning disabilities who have not yet reached their potential levels of success in traditional classroom settings. Ilana began her teaching career at the Central Park East school in Harlem and went on to become a founding teacher at the Ella Baker School, an alternative public school in Manhattan. She then worked as an Early Childhood Curriculum Consultant for the Children’s Aid Society where she developed curricula with directors and teachers in daycare, Head Start, and private nursery school programs throughout the city. Ilana received her B.A. from Harvard College and a Master’s Degree in Education from Bank Street College. She was born and raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and now lives there with her husband and three children.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a child, I was quite lucky — school was always a place where I felt comfortable and successful. But, I used to watch my friends who struggled- friends who would be confused or couldn’t understand what was being taught, and more often than not, the teachers thought that the solution was volume, speed, or repetition of what they were teaching. Meanwhile, those friends and classmates who still didn’t understand would grow impatient and sometimes act out, leading to issues in the classroom and repercussions for all students.

I remember feeling –or perhaps learning — from a very young age that the way the teacher treated the “worst” kid in the class was the way they treated the whole class. Even if I wasn’t the target of their unkindness or humiliation, their reactions hit me hard. I would try to help friends understand, spending many evenings on the phone with them, and I found it very satisfying to play a part in making the material and learning more accessible. This was where the seeds were sown in discovering my passion for thinking of a different way to provide help to students who were struggling. Today, at the entrance of Shefa, we have the quote “Teach a child according to his or her own way.” Proverbs 22:6

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

From the moment we opened, schools were reaching out to us asking ‘how can we do better in our school to help students with learning disabilities?’ And for this reason, ever since our inception, we have been offering workshops and roundtables. We have come to understand that one of the most impactful ways for us to work with other educators is to serve as a lab school or a teaching hospital. Educators can come in and observe what is happening, learn from our day-to-day struggles, and see how to make this type of learning work, for a broad spectrum of learners. And this is not theoretically speaking — it’s happening live and in the moment.

Now that the focus on COVID has subsided, we are seeing that schools seem to have an appetite for this kind of learning and engagement and we are seeing a rush to our door of educators and teachers who want to come sit in our classrooms and learn from us in a way that they certainly couldn’t do over the past few years.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Right when we founded Shefa and I was hiring our first teachers, I thought that THE most important thing was someone’s resume, someone with lots of experience. I remember that I met with two candidates, one of whom felt like the right person but was much younger and far less experienced than the other, but she seemed to be a better fit. Despite this gut feeling I had, I decided to hire the teacher with all the “right” things on her resume. Ten days into school, that teacher, with the “shiny” resume, decided this really wasn’t the job or environment for her, that she didn’t even want to be a teacher anymore and she quit. She left us in an incredibly stressful situation! The following year, I went back and hired the young teacher I had turned down the year before, and she was indeed a superstar! I learned that what’s on paper is not the only critical thing to consider. You also need to trust your gut and judge the human being sitting in front of you.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We have the privilege of working in a very optimistic corner of the world. We now understand a lot about the way the human brain works, neurodiversity, and how different people learn, and we can serve students who are struggling, who feel badly about themselves, and families who feel lost, worried, overwhelmed, and frustrated by the system that their child was in before. We have the opportunity to teach children with language-based learning disabilities in a way in which they can learn and it allows them to have more access to the world, and to feel like every other student. Our school offers them the opportunity to learn skills they can take with them long after they leave Shefa to have all the doors open and not to feel any limitations of what’s possible for them.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There’s one past Shefa student’s story that always comes to mind. When we first opened Shefa, we were planning to only offer second through fourth grades. One day, we received a panicked email from a mother asking us to consider having a fifth grade as her son, Ilan, was struggling and she was concerned he would never learn to read. Long story short, we told this mother that we of course didn’t have a crystal ball, but that we would have a fifth grade, and her son, Ilan, ended up being one of our first students. Fast forward a few years, Ilan graduated from Shefa not only able to read but a confident reader. And the gift that his mother gave to us was a crystal ball. Ilan excelled in high school, academically, socially, and athletically (he ended up being the goalie on the championship soccer team). And he is now at the University of Maryland’s School of Engineering.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Early detection: The sooner a learning disability is identified, the sooner we can support them through proper education materials and interventions. We need to implement early screening so no child is left behind.
  2. De-stigmatization of people who are different: We need to live in a world where there are more modifications and adaptations for people who are neurodivergent. This could include audio versions of materials, more resources for learning centers in universities, or employers having more flexibility in accepting and honoring the belief that diversity brings positive benefits to the workplace and our world.
  3. Proper training: Teachers need to be better trained and equipped to handle the diversity of students within their classrooms.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

A good leader creates an environment where everyone brings their best self, where people’s expertise, talents, and strengths are utilized, respected, and relied on. Leadership is also the ability to keep and communicate an inspiring vision.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Early on as a teacher, I was crying in my staff room when I was 4 months deep into teaching — feeling like a failure, that the kids weren’t learning anything, and I was terrible at my job. My mentor and friend, who’d been teaching for 25-plus years came up to me and said “how long have you been doing this, kid? I’ve been doing this for 25 years and I’m still learning. Why would you think you would figure this out in 4 months?” At the time I felt a bit mortified because, of course, she was right. It was a great reminder that the important stuff doesn’t happen quickly. This is all slow, and it builds on itself… and the lessons and learning moments are everywhere and forever!
  2. Not letting perfect be the enemy of good. No matter your job or your role — whether that’s working with a student, running a school, or being a parent — good enough is sometimes really enough. And if you get immobilized trying to make something perfect, you can be left with nothing.
  3. There are always going to be some unhappy people. As someone who likes to make people happy, I have learned to accept and live with the fact that not everyone is going to be happy with every decision made. People’s feedback is REALLY important, and should always be taken into consideration, but as a manager, it is important to understand and accept that not everyone will be happy with every decision.
  4. Care and attention can go a very long way. When people are unhappy, I cannot always fix the ‘problem’, but I can give them a place to express their concerns and feel heard which can go a long way.
  5. Learn to love the unpredictable. One of the things I love about working in a school is that schools are messy. When you work with children, they bring unforeseen challenges and unexpected delights every single day. This is something you can count on, and I have learned to always be prepared for the unpredictable. Of course, we all came out of Covid knowing how to live through the unplanned, but working in a school we re-learn this lesson daily!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I want a world where we celebrate differences and where children feel and believe (and know!) that they are ok just as they are.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have this quote from Margaret Mead in my office: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I dare say that this thinking has guided my career choices every step of the way, and continues to do so daily. We are all a part of something larger than ourselves and we can all make a difference — big and small.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would like to have lunch with Pablo Picasso! I know he’s not alive, but still…. A few years ago I was at the Picasso museum in Barcelona and I found myself thinking about this guy, this monumental genius, who spent most of his school years sitting outside the principal’s office. This was a child who was dyslexic and therefore couldn’t read! I would like to ask him what it felt like to be so talented and yet so misunderstood.

One thing I’d like to think about is, on one hand, we want to give kids the tools to survive in a conventional world — to know how to read, to write, to do well. But on the other hand, we also want to make sure the Pablo Picassos of the world have the support and the room to become the Pablo Picassos that we all celebrate and admire today. How do we make sure those two outcomes are not standing in conflict with one another? We don’t want to squash their creativity and their genius, we want to support their growth and their skills, and we also want to give them the tools to ‘survive’ in the world. So the question I ask myself, and that I would LOVE to ask Mr. Pablo Picasso, is: What does it mean for a school to make space for the next Pablo Picasso?

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