By Janet Harris
and Denise Moyes-Schnur
Ten years ago, the Early Childhood and Family Engagement (ECFE) Initiative (formerly known as Early Childhood Education Initiative) of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties (the Federation) identified an ambitious goal: to raise the raise the level of excellence of early childhood education (ECE) programs in our community and to engage more families with young children in Jewish life.
With our eyes on this prize, and in partnership with the Jim Joseph Foundation, we designed the Jewish Resource Specialist (JRS) Initiative in the Bay Area. Now in its third cohort, at 21 different ECE centers in the area, this model has proven to deeply influence Jewish ECE in our community. And, critically, as the model documentation details, this influence is prevalent long after a cohort’s specific three-year grant period concludes. Because of this impact, and because we believe this model is highly adaptable to other communities, we are pleased to share an updated and newly released model documentation by Informing Change – Enhancing Jewish Learning & Engagement in Preschool Life (executive summary available here) – which will be helpful to any community seeking to elevate Jewish ECE.
The last decade has seen a rise in the Jewish community’s appreciation for and commitment to excellent ECE programs – and the valued educators needed to lead and work in this field. While there undoubtedly is room for growth in developing even more highly skilled Jewish ECE educators, in providing fair compensation to those in the field, and in investing in more programs and initiatives to this end, a number of developments point towards a growing and maturing field of Jewish ECE. Communities around the country, including Los Angeles, Boston, and Chicago are making serious investments in local Jewish ECE; initiatives like PJ Library recently launched a new family camp; important research is being conducted; field leaders are gathering and learning together; and field-building resources are being produced and utilized.
With these important developments and the growth of the field, we hope more communities consider proven and effective strategies to improve and deepen investment in ECE. In the JRS Initiative, an ECE classroom teacher becomes a “Jewish resource expert” to support their school community – teachers, parents, and children. This expert deepens Jewish learning by strengthening the opportunities available in the school curriculum for children to engage in Jewish learning experiences. She or he also engages families in Jewish life by connecting families to Jewish opportunities at the preschool, within the preschool’s host institution, as well as in the broader Jewish community. As a cohort, the Jewish resource experts receive ongoing coaching, mentoring, and resource support to build Jewish knowledge and enhance the ability to create rich classroom and community experiences.
In addition to the ongoing support from the ECFE, the Initiative includes ECFE-sponsored conferences and webinars; days of learning and retreats; and an Israel seminar to deepen educators’ personal connection to Israel and empower them to facilitate a unique connection between their learners and Israel. In this regard, the Initiative addresses the still-pressing need to develop and retain highly skilled educators in the field and to present them with viable career paths. These are field-wide demands that can be met by developing the skills and Jewish knowledge of the JRS educators who then bring ideas and guidance to their schools.
From our first cohort in 2011-2014 with five Jewish ECE Bay Area programs, to our second cohort with ten, and now to our current cohort with eight programs, we continue to see positive and long-lasting outcomes. In fact, an independent evaluation of the JRS Initiative pilot found that the JRS Initiative is linked to the following findings:
- More explicit integration of family programming and classroom learning
- Jewish content integrated into typically secular family programs
- Holiday programs that draw more deeply from Jewish tradition
- High parent satisfaction with opportunities to explore Jewish life
- New opportunities for teachers to explore Jewish ECE and to enrich their focus on Jewish education in their curriculum
- Families participating in additional Jewish events around their community
- Parents choosing a Jewish educational framework for their preschool graduates
Early childhood education deserves our absolute best efforts because these are such formative years of development – both for children and their parents. When children enjoy Jewish learning and rituals at school, they bring them home, introducing them to the entire family and to their lives outside from school. The JRS Initiative is part of the process of professionalizing the field, showing teachers they are valued and have a support system, as it worked to elevate Jewish ECE programs. We see the outcomes in our community – every day. By sharing this model, we want to help other communities offer excellent Jewish ECE and support Jewish families in their formative years to strengthen and deepen Jewish life.
Janet Harris is Director of the Early Childhood and Family Engagement Initiative at the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties. Denise Moyes-Schnur is Associate Director of the Early Childhood and Family Engagement Initiative at Federation. Please contact Denise (denises