Chaya Chazanow and Sarah R’bibo have a lot in common. They are moms, they have kindergarten-age children with disabilities, they are Jewish – and they found what L.A. public schools were offering their kids just wasn’t enough.
“It was always a fight to get what he needed,” Chazanow says of her 5-year-old son, who was born with a rare genetic disorder. What’s more, there were no Jewish schools in the greater Los Angeles area – one of the largest Jewish communities in the country – that served students with disabilities. That left Chazanow and other Jewish parents of children with disabilities to send their kids to public school and handle Jewish education on the side.
Chazanow says this makes kids with disabilities feel even more separate from their peers. At a loss as to what to do, the Chazanows considered moving out of L.A.
Then she met R’bibo and they hatched a plan to change things for the better. The two began visiting places such as New York, which have large Jewish communities and multiple options for Jewish children with disabilities. Then they started working toward opening a school in L.A. The Chazanows and R’bibo, an attorney whose youngest daughter has cerebral palsy, began working on fundraising.
The pair found a partner in Friendship Circle Los Angeles, a nonprofit that provides social, recreational, educational and Judaic experiences for Jewish children with disabilities. Friendship Circle’s main campus on Robertson Boulevard features a sensory room and inclusive playground, and the organization offered space as well as guidance and resources to the new venture. In September, Learning Circle LA opened its doors to a small group of students ages 5-7, including Chazanow’s and R’bibo’s children.
Learning Circle LA is an independent learning center affiliated with a California charter school, allowing families to maintain their child’s IEP (individualized education program) and services they are receiving through the public school system. In addition, Learning Circle provides a platform for students to receive a variety of therapies onsite as well as general and Jewish-studies programming. “We have it all integrated in one center,” says R’bibo,“which is ideal for helping these children maximize their potential.”
Already, parents are noticing a difference. “I’m seeing so much more progress this year than in all the past years combined,” says Chazanow, who is director of the school, adding that her son’s recent IEP meeting was “the smoothest ever.”
The Judaic programming is also proving popular. “We are filling a huge need that has long gone unfilled,” says R’bibo. Leading up to the Rosh Hashana holiday in September, R’bibo’s daughter was learning about the holiday at Learning Circle. “She came home and she participated in the most meaningful way in the holiday,” R’bibo says. “It’s going amazingly well.”
The plan is for Learning Circle LA to continue to grow. Interested parents of children with moderate to severe disabilities should visit learningcirclela.com and get in touch. Whatever your child’s ability level, there are options. “We’re going to take each kid as they come,” Chazanow says. “We’re creating an individualized program.”