TORONTO — Just a few weeks after taking on the position of principal and clinical director of Zareinu Educational Centre, Mitchell Parker, right, stops in the hallway to greet a student by name and chat briefly with him and a staff member.
It’s still early in Parker’s tenure, a transition that took place last month, nine months after the death of his predecessor, Carol Goldman. He says he has yet to learn the names of all 65 students and 85 staff.
Goldman, whom Parker met briefly on a visit to the school five years ago, “left a very strong legacy,” he said in an interview.
“I’m trying to maintain Carol’s legacy and trying to carry on the things that she so strongly began, but I’m also letting the staff know, and I have a mandate from the board as well… to bring the school to the next level.”
A 58-year-old Toronto native who attended Associated Hebrew Schools and the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, Parker left the city in 1972 to pursue a master’s degree in education and then a PhD in educational psychology at the State University of New York in Buffalo.
His career includes a 10-year stint from 1993 to 2003 with Camp Ramah’s Tikvah program for special needs children, of which he was founding director, and more recently as a psychologist and psycho-educational consultant in Detroit. As well, he co-ordinated a parent education program for the Florence Melton Adult Mini School, a Jewish adult education program.
As might be expected from the approximately two dozen published academic papers listed on Parker’s CV, he wants to ensure that Zareinu’s educational and therapeutic services are “empirically based” and “best practice.”
As well, he said, “Ultimately, we want to have our own space.
“We’re very cramped right now, and that’s affecting our ability to provide the best-quality services.” A twice-weekly early intervention program for parents and children, he noted as an example, is held in a classroom for older students. The room has to be rearranged, and the students have to go elsewhere while the program is on, he said.
Parker, the father of two adult children, has been involved with both Jewish education and special education for most of his career, but aside from his summers at Ramah, he said that working at Zareinu marks the first time both aspects have come together for him.
Shortly before he left Toronto, when Parker served as youth director at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue for a year, the idea of having special needs programs within Jewish day schools was “non-existent,” he said. Even today, he added, programs like Zareinu’s are “very few and far between.”
Parker said his belief that “every child is entitled to have a quality education” is what drives him.
“I want to know that every child can learn and reach his potential. The sense of accomplishment that the kids and the parents have in every little step of progress that the kids make is extremely gratifying. It’s part of what drives me to work with children.”
Reflecting on advances in the field and in the Jewish community over the past 30 or 40 years, Parker said, “Now kids stay with their families [instead of being put in institutions], and we know that early intervention is a key piece of promoting potential. The idea of early intervention, intensive intervention, working with kids and seeing them improve is now much more a part of our culture.”
The next step, he said, is to continue to make the education of kids with special needs part of the mainstream. “For rabbis and community leaders to see inclusion of people with special needs as one of their objectives I think is something we still have to work on.”
At Zareinu, Parker aims to be “very hands-on… very approachable.”
Despite his tie and jacket, he prefers an informal approach, he said. He doesn’t mind getting on the floor with kids and getting his clothes dirty, and he prefers being on a first-name basis with staff and most of the students, he added.
From a practical standpoint, he noted, it’s easier for younger kids to call him “Mitch.”
His modest office has no diplomas on the wall – at least for now – but it boasts a collection of more than a dozen stuffed animals, including a parrot that repeats what is said to it.
Parker uses them therapeutically and diagnostically,
As well, he said, “They’re fun to have. I wanted people to feel that [my office] is not an imposing place to be.”