Achieving Excellence by Pursuing Excellence in our Early Childhood Center

ECE[For the past 18 months, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) supported three “Communities of Practice,” cohorts of congregations that came together to learn, discuss, and experiment in a specific field. Members from participating congregations have been asked to reflect about their process.]

By Dr. Paula Sayag

As an early childhood consultant with Washington, D.C.’s central Jewish education agency, I had the privilege of interacting with Jewish educators on a national scale, learning about trends in Jewish communal involvement, and helping congregations respond to large-scale concerns. Still, I didn’t have the opportunity to put into practice the advice I was offering other educators – or, more importantly, to build close relationships with the families that educators serve. So I decided to become a school director.

I started working at the early childhood center in Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD, in July 2009. Unfortunately, it was the first time in 20 years that classes weren’t filled. It was challenging to learn the ins-and-outs of a new community, gain their trust, and begin to envision the future for a school with decreased enrollment, a declining economy, a reduced budget, and changing neighborhood demographics.

In those first four years, we made several positive changes. I felt more assured of where I was leading the school, but I worried incessantly about enrollment and how to maintain staff. I still lacked the opportunity for connections with the broader community of Jewish educators, and I wondered what others were doing. Did they face similar challenges? Did anyone have innovative solutions?

When a colleague encouraged me to join the URJ’s Pursuing Excellence in Early Childhood Education Community of Practice, I jumped at the chance to learn with a select group of colleagues working in Reform congregations all around North America, all of whom were keen about undergoing a change process with their Early Childhood Centers. This would allow me to accurately assess our situation, uncover options, and find the best people to share in problem-solving.

In order to participate, our congregation was required create a leadership team, which was made up of a few volunteers. None of us was sure what we were getting into, but off we went. At the inaugural gathering, URJ Faculty Member Cathy Rolland and her cadre of change experts convinced us that we had to consider using new tools to face threats to Jewish early childhood education and to carefully and creatively tackle an experiment that could lead to effective change. To use a term coined by Rabbi Benay Lappe, could we practice “disruptive innovation”?

Our leadership team was both inspired and overwhelmed, and we stayed up nights contemplating the options. One colleague, who initially didn’t understand any of the issues, gained a sincere appreciation for the role that early childhood plays in the larger question of Jewish engagement. Another, who hadn’t been exposed to the national Jewish early childhood scene, was awed by the depth and breadth of talent.

We came home from our time with the Community of Practice committed to carrying out an experiment that we had previously contemplated but hesitated to conduct: offering families full-day programming. Our congregation had more dual-income families than ever, and they couldn’t participate in a part-day program. We knew full-day programming was a vital option.

The most powerful step our team took was choosing to meet monthly. These regular meetings, which were never cancelled and fully attended, made our experience successful. At each meeting, we reviewed logistical tasks and pondered the bigger picture – our mission and vision, culture, staff and parent needs and priorities, financial and political limitations, etc. We watched URJ webinars together and learned from other participants in the Community of Practice, while our board members met with teachers and parents to hear their perspectives. Every team meeting was invaluable and led to new ideas.

Ultimately, we partnered with an outside agency to provide an aftercare program in our building. We still operate a part-day program (though our hours are still longer than they ever were before), maintaining the culture and the staff that we cultivated over 25 years, but we can now accommodate our busy families by providing full-time child care. We use the tag line, “Your child’s best school experience, and your best childcare solution.”

We often said our experiment had “tentacles.” Not only did we implement full-day child care in a unique way, but we created inter-generational programming, further engaged the clergy in our school, re-educated the board, planned our second experiment, and so much more.

The URJ’s Community of Practice structure gave us tools to enthusiastically tackle change. It also offered the support of the URJ faculty and the opportunity to share the experience with colleagues in other cities who were experimenting at the same time. Our school and our team benefited so much from this experience that our board members have agreed to continue meeting monthly to see where our newfound skills and understanding can lead.

Eighteen months after beginning this journey, we are more knowledgeable and less scared of change. Our school is thriving, with more students and greater vibrancy than we have had since 2009. Our team, following intense discussion, titled our experiment “Accommodating Busy Families” because it’s about much more than full-day programming or enrollment statistics. Every aspect of our program is now evaluated through the lens of our families’ realities and facilitating their relationships within the Jewish community.

My favorite take-away from this experience? “Excellence is the pursuit of excellence.” We can’t stop improving.

Dr. Paula Sayag is the early childhood director at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, MD. Prior to this, she served as an early childhood Consultant at the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.

cross-posted at Blog