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Judith S. Bloch, special-education pioneer on Long Island, dies at 86

When special education didn't have a place in early childhood and elementary schooling in New York, Judith S. Bloch created one.

Bloch, founder of the Syosset-based Variety Child Learning Center, the first institution of its kind on Long Island, died June 15 at Huntington Hospital after suffering a fall. She left behind a legacy of activism in special education and early childhood education. The longtime Huntington resident was 86.

"I had some kind of crazy idea that I wanted to save children. I was a young bleeding heart," she told Newsday in 1997. "I was convinced we could change an outcome down the road that was dreadful."

Born Sept. 10, 1928, in Brooklyn, Bloch grew interested in special education after getting her master's degree in social work at Columbia University. She visited a New York children's psychiatric institute and what she saw upset her, Dr. Milton Bloch, her husband of 66 years, said.

There were few support services available for children with special needs, such as autism and developmental disabilities, outside of mental institutions and mothers were told they were to blame for their children's issues, he said. Judith Bloch took a different approach, however, when she opened the learning center's doors in 1966.

"She wanted to do more and she wanted to start early with these conditions," Milton Bloch said.

She pushed for intervention early in children's lives -- she designed the center for preschool ages -- and encouraged parents to become active helpers in therapy. During her 42 years as chief executive of the center, Bloch trained teachers, created education models, produced documentaries and expanded the center's services for children with a range of issues.

"That was an all-consuming mission of hers," her daughter, Natalie Bloch Langner of Manhasset, said of the center, adding that she and her two sisters were involved at one time or another. "She dedicated her life to this."

Bloch was also eager to be involved in her children's lives at home, Langner said. She liked listening to the music her husband and children played and enjoyed oil painting.

In addition to her husband and daughter, she is survived by eldest daughter, Deena Bloch Schaffert of Huntington; youngest daughter, Susan Bloch Leach of Huntington; brother, David Simon of Manhattan; sister, Miriam Forman of Great Neck; and seven grandchildren.

Bloch was buried June 17 at Beth David cemetery in Elmont. Donations can be made to the Variety Child Learning Center in her name.

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