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Maxine Segal Handelman is the consultant for early childhood education for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Max is the author of Jewish Every Day: The Complete Handbook for Early Childhood Teachers, The Shabbat Angels, What’s Jewish About Butterflies, The Vision for Conservative Early Childhood Programs and Early Childhood Staff Meeting Shiurim. She is a professional storyteller, and leads Tot Shabbat services for young families at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.

Maxine Handelman

Day schools and early childhood schools – it’s all about relationships.  A 2008 survey of non-Orthodox synagogue and JCC early childhood directors* revealed that while many EC directors are day school supporters, the day school community still has some work to do to insure healthy, supportive relationships with early childhood schools. The relationship between early childhood directors and the leadership of Jewish day schools is critical if families are to stay on the path of Jewish education. While there is no analysis of statistical significance, the survey does demonstrate that while in many locations this relationship is strong, there is still much room for improvement. Close to 70% of both Conservative and JCC EC directors consider themselves supporters of day school education, but fewer than 60% of Reform EC directors are day school supporters. Ideally, these numbers for all EC directors should be closer to 100%. While day school education is not the best choice for every family, every EC director should be able to proudly stand up and declare her support for day school education in general. Especially since parents do look to the EC director for guidance as to their child’s continuing Jewish education – 70% of survey respondents reported that at least some parents of students seek information from the early childhood director about their choice of a kindergarten/elementary school for their child.

Thankfully, most respondents had many more positive things to say about their interactions and knowledge of local day schools, but the negative comments are important to pay attention to. Early childhood programs are not simply feeders for day school and religious schools. Essential education happens in the early years, critical connections are made, and strong foundations are built. The more this is recognized by day school and religious school leaders, the better we will all be able to serve families and keep children and parents on the path of Jewish education.

Recommendations

For early childhood directors:

  • Initiate the conversation with parents about their child’s continuing Jewish education. The EC director should bring up the subject of continuing Jewish education with parents of 3’s and 4 year olds, if not with parents of younger children as well.
  • Not only directors, but also teachers should broach the subject with parents. This means that both the EC director and the teachers (at least the teachers of 4 year olds, and ideally all the teachers) should be personally familiar with all the continuing Jewish education options in the area.
  • Demand personal attention from day schools. Insist that you and your staff get tours and meetings with the heads of school before you consider turning over one class list. Then go on the tours and take the meetings. Ask a lot of questions.
  • Look for opportunities of partnership – for parents, children and teachers.
  • Be in communication about the “sharing” of four year olds. In communities where the day school has a 4 year old program, or the early childhood program hosts a kindergarten as well, have frank conversations with all the players about how the community can insure that families get the Jewish education they need, and each school gets its fair share of the market. Remember that Jewish life is the ultimate goal.

For day school heads of school:

  • Provide personal attention to local early childhood programs. Visit early childhood programs and meet with EC directors. Ask questions; seek to understand just what they do, and how. Do not ask for a class list from a school you have not personally visited. Provide information about your school for EC directors to pass on to their parents. In addition to the admissions packet, help to set up conversations with former ECE parents whose children attend your school.
  • Seek multiple venues to provide information about your school to the local early childhood directors. While the great majority of EC directors responded that they have the information they need about their local day schools, there was still a great response to ways they would choose to get more information, such as a personal visit to the school, the school’s admission packet, conversations with former ECE parents whose children attend a Jewish day school and an in-person meeting with the Head of School or Principal.
  • Look for opportunities of partnership – for parents, children and teachers. In addition to tours and meetings, consider study opportunities for EC and day school teachers together, opportunities which are not just offered by the day school, but are constructed together based on the expressed needs of the teachers in both settings.  Or workshops for early childhood parents and early childhood teachers offered by the day school on realistic expectations for incoming kindergarteners. Or a director’s council that creates a trusting space for sharing resources and professional growth opportunities.
  • Provide early childhood programs with updates on the progress of their “graduates” who are in your school.
  • Be in communication about the “sharing” of four year olds. In communities where the day school has a 4 year old program, or the early childhood program hosts a kindergarten as well, have frank conversations with all the players about how the community can insure that families get the Jewish education they need, and each school gets its fair share of the market. Remember that Jewish life is the ultimate goal.
  • Seek to establish quality programs and support for children with special needs.

The following comment sums up what an early childhood director is seeking from her day school colleagues: “I feel like the Day School values my opinion.” And when the relationship is working, we hear that “The director and staff have visited us and invited us to visit them. The goal is a partnership of sorts that will help us advise our parents based on our own positive experience with the school.” That’s a relationship that will entice parents to take the next step in Jewish education.

*conducted by Dr. Elaine Cohen, Solomon Schechter Day School Association Executive
USCJ and Maxine Handelman, USCJ Early Childhood Education Consultant

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