Can Competitors Become Collaborators? These Chicago Educators are Proof They Can!

By Susie Wexler, Nancy Manewith, Leanne Nathan, and Cherene Radis

In a large metro area that offers families with young children many early childhood educational options, is collaboration among preschool directors possible? Can the leaders of these early childhood organizations view each other as collaborators and not as threats?

As participants in the Chicago Early Engagement Leadership Initiative (CEELI), we’re proof the answer is “Yes!”

Supported by Crown Family Philanthropies and an anonymous funder, and directed by the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) – CEELI brings together a cross-denominational cohort of 16 Jewish early childhood organizations within the Chicago area, including the four organizations we lead, which are all in Chicago’s North Shore.

Chicago’s North Shore is a densely populated area with many early childhood educational options, including Jewish and secular, public and private, full- and part-day programming, and other schools that cater to niche populations. This breadth is well-represented in the organizations that the four of us lead, and hence, within the CEELI cohort. Each of the four of us leads different types of programs, including two non-denominational systems with multiple area locations (JCC Chicago and the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago), a Reform congregation school (B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim), and a Conservative Movement school (Moriah Early Childhood Center). This mix includes both full-day and half-day offerings.

Each of us joined CEELI three years ago. Amazingly, as CEELI’s North Shore members, we all work within a 3.5-mile radius of each other. Although we are geographically close to one another and view each other’s schools as competitors, we have come to realize, through our work with CEELI, that there is strength in numbers and we can accomplish more when we stand together.

Experts refer to this phenomenon as “coopertition,” which Urban Dictionary defines as “a hybrid of cooperation and competition … the term coined for the teaming up of two rival companies.” The concept is based on the idea of teams helping each other compete in a healthy manner, an approach that allows providers within a given industry to view others as resources. It’s a means to raise quality for all – and CEELI is a perfect example of coopertition in action. Here are just a few ways it’s benefitted us and our communities.

1. We recognize our shared vision.

Through our work in CEELI, we’ve learned that we all offer quality programs to our families, and that value is increased exponentially when we all work cooperatively to define, articulate, and maintain best practices in Jewish early childhood education. Since CEELI brought us together around a shared vision, we’ve been able to redefine our interactions both as centers and as individuals.

2. Weve learned much about our community and our industry.

CEELI established regular meeting opportunities for directors, teaching staff, and board members from participating early childhood programs. These monthly meetings rotated through the schools, creating awareness of each of the participating programs by building familiarity with the environment, programming, and documentation unique to each school. CEELI also created opportunities for learning by bringing in experts to share knowledge about best principles in service industries.

3. Weve started tackling shared problems together.

We’ve developed a greater appreciation for the factors that affect us equally, and we’ve identified areas for advocacy and further professional development. By problem-solving together, we expanded and deepened our relationships, we came to know one another as individuals, and we respect one another as professionals. Over time, we developed trust and felt safe sharing our authentic concerns about issues such as hiring and staff retention, professionalism within the field, institutional support, financial pressures, supportive technologies, and more.

4. Weve stopped seeing each other as competitors.

Through this collaborative process, we stopped perceiving one another as competitors vying for students. Instead, we now view ourselves as sharing an investment in high quality Jewish early childhood education. We shifted our approach from interviewing prospective families for enrollment in our own school to seeking matches for families that will ensure their engagement in Jewish programming that’s truly right for them.

5. Weve developed personal and professional relationships.

By approaching early childhood education through a lens of coopertition, we developed a deep appreciation for one another and the quality programming we each provide. We learned to look at the bigger picture, considering how we can advocate for one another, share resources, and work together to engage families with young children in our area. The result is we have seen an overall increase in the quality in our schools, programs, and family engagement, which has benefitted Jewish families as they embark on their early childhood education journeys.

We encourage you to think about who’s in your own backyard and how those whom you’ve considered competitors can be collaborators. In making this shift to joining forces with other organizations in your community, you’ll open yourself – and your schools or congregations – up to infinite possibilities and resources.

Susie Wexler is the director of B’nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim Early Childhood program at the Chava Center. Nancy Manewith is the director of the Early Childhood Centers of the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago. Leanne Nathan is the director of JCC “Z” Frank Apachi Early Childhood. Cherene Radis is the director of the Moriah Early Childhood Center.

Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog