As a freshman at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Sue Schweber and a few other students convinced the university to give credits for Jewish history classes. But that was just a beginning. Sue later worked with student and faculty groups to establish the Judaic Studies department. Along the way, she helped organize the school’s kosher kitchen in the student union.
That’s who Sue Schweber is, someone who thrives on making things happen against all odds.
“Maybe I’m stubborn or won’t take ‘no’ for an answer, but somehow I always come into something when people are ready to give up,” she says with a trademark grin. “Every time someone says it can’t be done that spurs me on.”
And those lessons from her UMass Amherst years live on. “What I learned in college is that, to create change, you need to take small steps, be patient and bring the right people together who share the same passion to make it happen.”
Though her hard-of-hearing mom dreamed of her daughter going into audiology, Sue chose to pursue the related fields of linguistics, speech and language, education and psychology, with Jewish Studies added when it was finally a department. After finishing up at UMass and completing a graduate degree in Speech and Language Pathology and later a certificate in Language Learning Disabilities, Sue spent a decade creating preschool and early screening programs and working with students of all ages with special needs in the Walpole Public Schools. Later as a key player in creating the mission, philosophy and curriculum of the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School, it was important to her that “the school begin with a strong philosophy of appreciating learning differences.”
In 1991 Sue received the phone call that would give her the greatest challenge of her career. It was a Sharon dad named Joel Wine saying he and a few other parents were hoping she’d help them get something pretty ambitious off the ground. They’d heard from Jane Cohen at Schechter that Sue was a speech-language pathologist who loves students with special needs and the challenge of turning vision into reality. What they had in mind: weaving a supportive web to enable kids with special needs to attend Jewish day schools.
“I love to solve problems,” Sue says. “And I loved the idea of helping students get a day school education who wouldn’t have otherwise had that chance.”
Meeting with the heads of the three South Area schools, Sue asked them what they were missing to serve every child who comes to them. “The expertise,” they answered.
“I said, ‘If we provided you the expertise, do you want it?’ They all said ‘yes.’ I gulped. I had just promised that there would be a program up and running in September.”
Though the start-up Jewish Special Education Collaborative (JSEC)’s first goal was to enable at-risk students to remain at their day schools, everyone involved soon realized their special education techniques “could help students who were struggling and maybe even help others attend who would never have had the chance before.”
By the time JSEC joined with Etgar L’Noar to form Gateways in 2006, it had doubled to six schools. Now, 165 children in 11 area day schools receive the special education support they need to be able to thrive there.
“What amazed me from the first was the trust the parents had in us,” Sue recalls. “We had their collaboration every step of the way.”
One of Sue’s first rules for administering the growing program was to spend time in the schools. “I knew I had to be there to really understand their culture and their students, their teachers and their needs.” Which is why for most of her years as an administrator Sue insisted on carrying her own speech and language caseload.
“It’s about working as a team,” she adds. “When change belongs to everyone involved, everyone’s excited about it and it’s not just us forcing the change but everyone working together and really wanting it.”
Throughout the years, “When someone says this child can’t learn, it lights a fire under me. There’s always a way, we just haven’t found it yet. We can never say, ‘oh well, we tried.’”
Now, as she retires from her role as Gateways Day School Program Director, supervising two coordinators and 19 therapists, Sue says she has every confidence the programs she helped build will continue to grow and make all the difference in children’s lives. And she promises to stay on part-time as a consultant.
“Our first students are in high school now, and many still use our strategies but don’t need us with them anymore,” she says. “Watching our students be successful is one of the most incredible thrills you could imagine.”
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