Back to School

A higher education partnership to elevate Jewish early childhood education

In Short

Jewish preschools and daycares serve a critical role in getting people involved in the community, so the Rodan Family Foundation is looking to improve the conditions for the people who run them

Early childhood Jewish education is a connector unlike any other entry point into Judaism. Young families are drawn to early childhood Jewish schools for friendships, Jewish experiences, a sense of community and more. But behind the scenes in these settings, educators are struggling. 

Imagine yourself working day after day in an extremely low-paying job, albeit one that you absolutely love. You’d like to be able to progress in your career but an advanced degree seems out of reach. This is the case for early childhood educators in Jewish early childhood centers around our nation. A recent study by EDSource found that “Preschool teachers and childcare workers earn 38% less than their colleagues in the K-8 system, the report says. This explains why 17% of early childhood educators live in poverty in California. That’s almost 7 times the poverty rate for the state’s K-8 teachers.” Enter “To Teach and To Learn: A Partnership with the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund in San Francisco and American Jewish University,” which offers an affordable way for educators in Jewish preschools to obtain an advanced degree in early childhood education (ECE) through a Jewish lens.

More than two years ago, the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund in San Francisco launched this new initiative, supported by the Rodan Family Foundation, designed to raise the quality, professionalism and compensation of early childhood educators in East Bay Jewish preschools. Our community, like many others across the country, wanted to do more to support its local early childhood educators. The Federation’s Early Childhood and Family Engagement Initiative (ECFEI) and the Rodan Family Foundation are also acutely aware of the national teacher shortage and the need to further professionalize the field and raise compensation.

The program began in the fall of 2021, with applications sent to ECE directors in Jewish preschools in the East Bay, a suburb of San Francisco. Directors were asked to recommend applicants, including themselves. Our first cohort of ten included ECE teachers and directors representing seven different preschools, all eager to work toward their master’s degree in early childhood education at American Jewish University in Los Angeles through a virtual program. Cohort one recently graduated and the next cohort, which will be led by EarlyJ, begins this fall.

Two critical aspects of the initiative made this more than just an opportunity to go back to school. While we know that advanced degrees raise the quality of the preschool program, we knew that the preschools in our area could not compensate the participants of this program commensurate with other fields whose employees receive an advanced degree. We knew that we had to address compensation more directly for these educators and provide them with an increase in their salaries that was profound for this field. We also saw this as an opportunity to continue our leadership pipeline — growing teachers and future directors through robust professional development. We approached these challenges in the following ways:

Money Matters

With gratitude to the Rodan Family Foundation, the initiative provided heavily subsidized tuition. Program participants were only responsible for ten percent of this cost (along with other fees). Several of the participants noted, “I could not have attended college without the financial support of this grant”

While this is very significant, a longer-term value-add for participants starts to occur this coming school year, when they will receive an increase in salary to reflect their new professional status. Each participant received an increase of $12,000 per year; the foundation is subsidizing that increase for three years, at a cascading decrease over that time. Reflecting our belief to have community buy-in, the preschools absorb the increased compensation in recognition of the added value degreed professionals bring to their programs. An important addition to this grant is that all teachers and directors at participating preschools who already have an advanced degree in early childhood or education will receive a compensation increase according to the same schedule. 

We are validating both the worth of our ECE teachers and directors, and the worth of a degree focused on ECE – two actions that finally reflect the importance of ECE work. As a result of this new compensation, and as this program continues, our community will have a critical mass of teachers and directors who are expertly trained and well networked (more on that below) — two staples of a professional, respected field. 

Grow a Network

While the university experience alone is rewarding, professionals in a field should have more. They should be well connected with each other and with subject matter experts that they can learn from, focused on specific needs in their area. To that end, we created a robust, ongoing cohort learning experience. AJU provided a mentor for each student who guided them through the program. The federation created a Community of Practice group for the participants with learning sessions, one two-day retreat, and two Yomai Iyun, (Days of Learning, which I led) each year. We focused these sessions on issues of particular importance to the East Bay community. The educator could then integrate this knowledge into the classroom and in their work connecting young families to Judaism. Over time, each participant built their expertise and became a highly connected cohort of peers. 

We believe there are many successes from “To Teach and To Learn.” With their new degrees, teachers and directors are both better equipped for their work and compensated more appropriately. They also have deeper connections to their East Bay colleagues and can turn to each other for support. We see this program as integral for educator recruitment and retention for our Bay Area schools — the second cohort of this program filled quickly. Our families and children are now receiving deeper and more meaningful learning and family engagement experiences designed by better-trained educators who have a fuller understanding of our community’s specific needs. The preschools’ host institutions and our broader Jewish community all benefit from innovative and experienced educators who elevate the ECE experience in Jewish preschools, contributing to stronger, and more connected, local Jewish life. 

There is no single, easy fix to challenges facing Jewish ECE. In our community, we have taken a huge step forward in the education and compensation of our early childhood educators in Jewish preschools. Based on its first two years, “To Teach and To Learn” is a success locally and, we believe, is a template for a national model as well. We are continuing to assess and evaluate its ongoing impact and hope other communities and local funders consider their own higher education initiative. Together, these initiatives would have the potential to elevate Jewish ECE as a field — and our talented, committed educators who help our youngest learners and their parents thrive.

Denise Moyes Schnur is a private practice consultant and coach in early childhood Jewish education and was formerly the director of early childhood and family engagement at the Jewish Federation and Endowment Fund in San Francisco.