From the Foundation Team

Advancing Jewish Early Childhood Education through Coordination and Collaboration

April 17th, 2013

Jewish parents with young children are at a pivotal point in their connection to Jewish community and to their own Jewish identity.  The “disruption” of a couple becoming a family provides an opportunity for the Jewish community to offer services, social networks and educational programming (What Makes a Difference, and What Difference Does It Make?, Levisohn, 2013).

Recognizing the unique opportunities for engagement and education of this population of young Jews (both adults and children!), the Jim Joseph Foundation has awarded grants to a variety of Jewish early childhood education initiatives, totaling $6.2 million over six years.

Among the Foundation’s earliest investments was the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI), a national entity with a regional agenda focusing on developing models of excellence in schools.  At the same time, the Foundation invested locally in the Bay Area Early Childhood Education Initiative (ECEI), based at the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco.   ECEI focuses on four pillars:  parent engagement and outreach (through the PJ Library and Beyond the Books programming), professional development, compensation and finance, and standards of excellence.

Six years later, while JECEI (as a national entity) no longer exists, select cities have continued to fund and develop models of excellence at their Jewish early childhood sites.

The success of the Bay Area ECEI is notable and tangible — with over 2,000 PJ Library families enjoying Beyond the Books programming throughout the year, 100 educators networked and engaged in ongoing learning opportunities, and 25 educators enrolled or graduated from immersive, in-service training and certification programs in order to advance their careers as Jewish early childhood educators.

PJ Library is now a national phenomenon.  It has become a household name – reaching more than 196,000 children in the United States.  Funders are stepping up to make new investments – both large and small – in the Jewish early childhood education arena, but still more attention to this space is needed.  One of the possible barriers to coordination of programs, strategies, and funding is the lack of a national infrastructure.  A national entity would likely enable increased opportunities for professionalization and advancement of the field, promoting communication among both practitioners and funders.

As the Jim Joseph Foundation’s grantmaking has evolved, a particular area of focus is educator training.  While there are extremely talented Jewish early childhood experts working on initiatives designed to both increase and improve the Jewish early childhood education opportunities throughout the country, it is not a field that is fully professionalized.

To address this, a Foundation grant initiated the Jewish Resource Specialist (JRS) program, a component of the Bay Area ECEI based at the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties.  Funded in 2012, JRS is a three-year program currently being piloted at five Jewish preschools in the Bay Area.  The model is built around a master teacher, already employed at the site, who takes on additional responsibility. The teacher becomes a Jewish pedagogic resource for colleagues at the school and for parents who are seeking advice and guidance about Jewish community choices for their family.  By receiving training throughout the three years, engaging in a community of practice, and participating in ongoing mentoring, JRS educators themselves grow as professionals.

The Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute (JECELI), a joint program of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and Hebrew Union College (HUC), also launched in 2012. JECELI is part of a broader educator training initiative – the Education Initiative – funded by the Foundation. It is a 15 month in-service professional learning program for new Directors of Early Childhood Education Centers or educators working towards a leadership position in a Jewish Early Childhood Education institution.  The program is a unique partnership between the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College with academic support from Bank Street College.  Over the course of JECELI, a cohort learns together during a spring orientation retreat, three ten day in-person seminars, including intensive academic study with faculty from JTS, HUC and Bank Street, in addition to extensive mentoring.  This mentoring includes small group work and individual support at seminars, site visits of mentors to participants’ home institutions, as well as distance learning and conversations during the length of the program.

Both JECELI and JRS seek to deepen the Jewish learning of the educators.  Each is designed to prepare Jewish educators to work with families to help develop strong connections to their Jewish communities and to nurture their children’s Jewish growth.

Both programs have a week-long Israel Seminar as a core pedagogic requirement for training of high quality Jewish early childhood educators.  Since the participants of each initiative – and the individuals leading these programs – can benefit from learning together and sharing information, the programs combined participants in the Israel Seminar this year.

The Seminar provided an opportunity for these educators to learn about Israel and Israeli early childhood education practices, as well as to learn from each other.  While JRS and JECELI have different target populations, unique curricular goals, and structure, the Israel experience demonstrates the value added when local and national initiatives align.