Partners in the News

Major new push to address ‘critical shortage’ of preschool teachers takes shape

– by eJewish Philanthropy

May 6th, 2023

New initiative, launched by JCCA, JFNA and URJ, will train over 400 early childhood Jewish education teachers nationwide in coming years

The JCC Association of North America, Jewish Federations of North America, and the Union for Reform Judaism are preparing to launch a major new initiative to train hundreds of new early childhood Jewish educators in the coming years, filling two key positions ahead of the program’s launch this fall.

The $12 million program goes by the working title of Project-412, a reference to a passage from Pirkei Avot 4:12 about education, though this is likely to change before the official launch in September.

Orna Siegel, currently the director of enrollment at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland, will serve as the inaugural executive director of the nationwide program. And Sasha Kopp, an early childhood and family engagement consultant at The Jewish Education Project, was named the senior director of education and engagement. Siegel and Kopp will enter their new roles on June 5 and will formally be employed by JCCA.

Project-412, which was first initiated in 2019, will first launch a three-year pilot program in 14 communities across the country that will recruit, train and help give credentials to 30 educators in each participating community – 420 educators in total. This is meant to at least begin to address a national “critical shortage of qualified early childhood educators” in Jewish schools, according to the JCCA.

“Together, the JCC and Reform movements operate 475 early childhood centers that serve more than 65,000 young children and their families. Tens of thousands more remain on long waiting lists because of the critical shortage of qualified, trained educators. Project-412 will ultimately expand the ECJE system’s capacity to serve significantly greater numbers of children and families, inspiring new and lasting connections to the Jewish community,” JCCA said in a statement.

The majority of the initial funding for the program, $8.5 million of the $12 million in total, was donated by the Jim Joseph Foundation, Crown Family Philanthropies, and the Samuels Family Foundation. The remaining $3.5 million will be raised by the 14 participating communities by 2025.

A spokesperson for the JCCA said the names of those communities, as well as the new branding for Project-412, will be finalized and announced in the coming weeks.

The training programs will be open to “anyone who wants to engage young children in joyous Jewish learning,” Kopp told eJewishPhilanthropy. Applicants do not have to be Jewish to apply, according to JCCA, nor do they have to have a background in education.

The shortage of early childhood educators is not only a problem in Jewish schools but is a national issue, one that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study by the National Institute for Early Education Research last year.

Kopp said it is particularly acute in private Jewish schools as many teachers prefer the often higher salaries and better benefits offered by public institutions. “Not only are we losing teachers from year to year, but also teachers are getting jobs in public schools during the year,” she said.

In addition to existing teachers moving to the public school system, Kopp said there is also a shortage due to demographic shifts, as young families have moved to areas that do not have sufficient Jewish education infrastructure. “Our schools are not able to provide enough high-quality early childhood classes in the neighborhoods where young families are living to be able to support our greater Jewish landscape,” Kopp said.

While Kopp said the shortage of early childhood educators is acute and readily apparent, it is difficult to give a concrete number of how many educators are needed due to high turnover rates of staff in schools. “The reason why we don’t know that number is that there’s a significant lack of teacher retention and significant turnover throughout the year,” she said.

“By investing in our schools and by having more staff, that allows our educators to be creative. If they have an extra set of hands, that means teachers can have time to plan. They can write parent-teacher conference reports. They can examine students’ artwork and create more emergent in-depth curricula that focus on children’s curiosity,” Kopp said. “Right now, there’s not enough staff in our classrooms who are able to do that super level of education.”

Kopp said they were now working with a number of outside “content partners” to develop the training curriculum for the inaugural classes, with the goal of teaching them “about child development, emerging curriculum, play-based learning, art and drama and how to create a multi-sensory engaging Jewish curriculum for all students.”

Project-412 does not directly address the underlying reason why many teachers leave private Jewish early childhood education centers in favor of better-paying public offerings. But Siegel said that she hopes the initiative does indirectly do so by both making the participants feel appreciated and that the resulting atmosphere will improve their salaries.

“I think the first aspect of it is to recognize the importance of the value of the work and ensure that the participants understand how much respect they deserve and that they feel that respect regardless of compensation,” Siegel said. “Though I do hope that compensation will come up to be commensurate with the importance of the work that they do.”

In addition, both Siegel and Kopp said that by training the participants in groups and matching them with mentors will help create a feeling of community that will also help with teacher retention.

According to Kopp, who has been involved in the development of Project-412 since 2019, the initiative is meant to have a wide impact, to not only address the immediate educational needs of the children involved but to also set them up for further Jewish education in later years and to increase the significance of Judaism for the entire family.

“I really believe that Jewish early childhood education is the key to later Jewish engagement,” Kopp said.

Siegel, whose background is more in the field of Jewish day schools, similarly said that she saw focusing on early childhood education as a way to have an impact on larger Jewish communal issues.

“I’m interested in the question of Jewish vitality in all sectors and I have a strong belief that education is the way to act,” Siegel told eJP.

“Strengthening and expanding the reach of Jewish preschools and early childhood centers is a vital and foundational step in building, sustaining and growing the health of the Jewish community overall,” she said. “The reason I think this is so exciting is because it’s taking a very large problem of Jewish engagement globally, and saying, ‘Where’s the bottleneck?’”

This is supported by a March 2020 study by the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education that found that parents who enrolled their kids in Jewish daycares and preschools were more likely to say they took part in “Jewish and Israel-themed cultural activities” than those who didn’t.

Kopp, who now works for The Jewish Education Project, which recently identified a trend of significantly decreasing Hebrew school attendance for older children, said that strengthening Jewish early childhood education could also address this issue.

“There’s much more of a seamless bridge between the early childhood center and the religious school if the kids are connected to the early child center. They would already know friends and they would begin religious school with the sense of excitement of going back to the building that they spent their early childhood in,” Kopp said.

published in eJewish Philanthropy