Networking ECE in the Day School Space
A great deal of attention is paid to strengthening connections along the continuum of education: elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, high school to college or vocational school. Our eyes are always focused on where our children are going to next. Are they ready? Do they have the skills they need? Are we networking and building relationships with the schools we are sending our students to?
In this continuum, the earliest link, early childhood (birth through pre-K programs), too often gets overlooked. In a recent article in the Forward, “If You Want Me, Give Me Childcare,” Deborah Kolben talks about why Jewish childcare is so important. New parenthood brings with it feelings of isolation and trepidation. Young parents seek a connection, a place they are familiar with to meet other people, like them, maneuvering this new unchartered water. Kolben argues that the first two years of parenthood are the most critical in forming a community. As head of a school that offers three month old care, I can testify firsthand that the bonds parents form the first few years often lead to lifelong friendships.
Many parents come to our school stating that they have done nothing with their Jewish identity since their bar or bat mitzvah. Now that they have children, they are trying to figure out what Jewish life means for them and their family. Just as new parents are hungry for information from knowledgeable people on nutrition and safety, they are hungry for help defining their spirituality. How do I answer those questions about God my child is asking me? Do I teach them bedtime prayers, and what do they look like? What does my family believe, and where does it fit within the spectrum of Jewish faith and practice? Jewish ECE can fill this critical role as a guide during this formative time in a family’s identity. The longer families are at our schools and the more we have the opportunity to bond and engage with them, the more likely parents are to consider the options of Jewish day school and synagogue affiliation.
Kolben states that the reason we are not focused on early childhood is that it is expensive with a low profit threshold. Birth to age two is especially costly and not much profit is made. However, there’s a good reason to start that young: most families that begin at that early age continue on in the school. The older ECE years, from two to pre-K, see a much higher profit margin, and many times ECE centers serve as the cash cow of synagogues that run them.
At these ages, you really have parents seeing the results of a Jewish school experience. Two days ago, a mother told me about how her two-year-old daughter’s favorite day was Shabbat and the mother asked why. The child replied she loved the prayers. Mom asked which one she liked the best and after reciting them all she said her favorite was the blessing for the wine. How excited that parent was at her child’s love of Shabbat and of her education! How much did that family’s chance of continuing this positive experience through elementary school just increase?
Jewish preschool provides the best bridge to Jewish elementary school. Of course, the fact that public elementary school is free presents a big temptation to our parents. However, if families are at your school paying for preschool, they already are putting money toward their child’s education. It’s a lot easier to trade in a car to buy a new one when you’re already making a car payment. It’s harder once the car is paid off and you suddenly have to come up with several hundred dollars for a new bill. If they are already attending your school, happy with the program and environment, then paying for elementary school tuition is much easier.
If your school isn’t about to create its own ECE center, it is essential to forge the strongest relationships with the schools in your community that offer early childhood. This means not just checking in around registration time. You should apply the same PR tactics with those schools and their personnel and parent base as you are with potential donors. Are you bringing them treats at Purim, sending birthday cards to the directors, offering to sponsor events they are holding? What about field trips to your school?
You should leverage your school’s operational systems to create financial ties with these early childhood centers: for example, placing orders for arts and crafts and office supplies, or larger truck items you need to order, sharing expenses for resource staff or special programs. That saves you both money and creates a bond between your institutions. Do you invite those smaller preschools to join in your teacher training? Now, you have those professionals on your site, working side by side learning with your staff.
Let’s address the schools that have early childhood centers already on their site and treat them as completely separate institutions. In reality, they aren’t; they are your future students—only shorter. Too many ECE programs stand alone and are given very little in resources.
I am thrilled that RAVSAK has begun to offer monthly conference calls and a listserv for this population through Reshet ECE (see sidebar). There are so many resources among us, and our experiences are more similar than different. Let’s share great ideas, brainstorm dilemmas and offer accomplishments for others to shadow. Jewish education is a small community; Jewish early childhood education is even smaller. Reshet ECE will help us expand our knowledge and network of colleagues, enabling us all to grow and our schools to improve and thrive.
I encourage you to reconsider if you don’t have an early childhood program. If you do have one, what are you doing to develop those parental and professional relationships? The longer the continuum of Jewish education, the richer the experience for everyone. We all win.♦
Debby Kinman-Ford is day school director at B’nai Israel Community Day School in Gainsville, Florida. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Join Reshet ECE, RAVSAK’s network for early childhood education, in its first conference call of the year on Tuesday, September 11th, 2-3 pm ET. Don’t miss this essential opportunity to strengthen your school, develop your own knowledge and capacities, contribute to and learn from the collective wisdom of RAVSAK educators! Agenda items for this meeting include Rosh Hashanah programming, marketing to elementary schools and the Jewish community, and social media strategies. The reshet facilitator is Debby Kinman-Ford, director of B’nai Israel Community Day School, a preschool for ages 3 months to pre-K in Gainesville, Florida. Call-in information: (218) 862 – 6420, Code: 706417.♦