Mary Clough providing inclusion at Epstein Hillel School

Mary Clough has over 20 years working in specialized setting. Photo by Pamela Joye

Mary Clough, the Learning Center specialist at Epstein Hillel School(EHS), has been creating a more inclusive environment for students by providing specialized services to the school’s student population for almost 20 years.

“It’s interesting. Many people think pulling a child out of a class is non-inclusive. But having a child drowning in a classroom, comparing himself to others, is actually worse. They just lag further,” explains Clough. “Children get better services if they’re pulled out. In the Learning Center, they feel successful.”

Clough started out team-teaching in a fourth-grade classroom, providing support where it was needed. In the twenty years since then, her role has evolved. Clough’s willingness to be flexible, adapt, and innovate has resulted in a large, well-equipped Learning Center which services students in K-8 who have different learning profiles.

“Some of the students are on individualized education programs from their towns, and some of them are students that we, through recommendations of teachers or through benchmark testing, flag as needing some extra help or intervention to bring them up to grade expectations,” said Clough.

“Most of that involves lots of reading support, but it’s also math. For older students, it’s organization and comprehension and general time management of their workload,” added Clough.

Epstein Hillel School received a sizable earmarked donation for increasing special education support.

“The school wanted to be more inclusive; Cohen Hillel didn’t want to turn anyone away because of a learning difference,” said Clough, referring to the school’s former name.

With a background in specialized education and experience working in both public schools and specialized settings for over 15 years, Clough was on the front lines of special education. She has worked with students with severe mental illnesses, significant physical disabilities, and the inability to speak.

Clough taught all subjects from reading and math to life skills, such as writing checks and basic banking. She has provided support in mainstream classrooms, as well as in resource rooms for individualized learning.

Clough credits Epstein Hillel School for creating an environment in which there is no stigma attached to having learning differences.

“The school just naturally has this feeling of inclusiveness. In all my years here, I have never heard any student say, ‘Oh, those kids are being pulled out of class because they’re not as good as us.’ Not with lower school students or upper school students,” Clough said. “I feel like there’s just this general understanding that we all have strengths in some areas and challenges in others.”

Head of School Amy Gold agrees.

“Not only is there no stigma associated with the Learning Center, but Clough’s students are also eager and proud to work with her,” said Gold. “Learning with Mary is often where students feel the most accomplished.”

Clough has countless anecdotes about the success stories of her students in the Learning Center. For some students, success means “graduating out” of the Learning Center because they’ve reached their grade level in reading.

For others, skills that were learned with Clough are carried throughout a student’s education from Epstein Hillel School to high school and then college.

Clough often bumps into alumni parents who attribute their now-adult children’s successes to their work with Clough in the Learning Center so many years ago. In some cases, the impact is more immediate.

One student who transferred to Epstein Hillel School during middle school came in struggling to write a complete sentence. His prior academic experiences left him falling behind and severely affected his self-confidence, his motivation, and his anxiety. Clough said that in the Learning Center, “he became an incredibly independent student who was able to advocate for himself, knew how to write, and grew secure about himself.”

“I can honestly say as a teacher, you think of the two paths — you could go this way or that way depending on an intervention. He is one of those students, all of those talents would have just been undiscovered had he not come to the Learning Center,” Clough added.

Clough is humble and attributes these success stories to the school, but this student’s parents will tell you Clough herself is a huge factor.

“She doesn’t just teach the kids in the Learning Center. She goes above and beyond to advocate for them,” said Amy Meltzer, the mother of an EHS graduate and two current EHS students.

“Within three months of starting at Epstein Hillel School, our son had a system to complete his work successfully, and Mary didn’t just give him the system,” Meltzer added. “She helped him come up with a system that worked for him. He uses it to this day in high school. Just yesterday, he was writing an essay, and he said, ‘Look how I set it up. It’s the way Mary taught me.'”