Chicago’s Innovative Approach to Engaging Young Families

photo-JPG_girl_lighting_candles-227x300By Nancy Manewith

It all began with an amazing meeting – a discussion, really – with Susan Zukrow, the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) project director for the Chicago Early Engagement Leadership Initiative (CEELI). This new program, funded by the Crown Family Philanthropies and facilitated by the URJ, brings together 12 cross-denominational Jewish early childhood centers from the Chicago area to strengthen their work of engaging young children and their families through program excellence, while building and sustaining meaningful relationships. Though not an educator herself, Susan painstakingly took the time to learn the history and workings of the Chicago Metro area’s Jewish early childhood community, in order to lead this groundbreaking early engagement leadership initiative.

From the moment I met Susan, I was determined that the Board of Jewish Education Early Childhood Centers (BJE-ECC), where I serve as director of preschools, should be part of this exciting adventure. I knew that participation in the cohort would introduce us to the latest in educational, technological, and Judaic ideas within the early childhood and business worlds, and would thus foster our mission statement: “to stay at the cutting edge of early childhood developmental practice.” I sensed that by building relationships with other Jewish educators, we could research together as partners. This would further our desire to learn, adapt our school, and stay current and progressive, all while meeting the needs of our children and their families.

As part of the CEELI cohort, we at BJE-ECC have now begun an inspiring journey that encompasses our entire professional staff and will benefit the families in our four schools, as well as the entire young Jewish community. Since our acceptance into the CEELI program, our leadership group – consisting of our assistant director, a board member and myself – has thrown itself into studying who we are, where we’re going, and who is on this journey with us. We’ve formulated and thoroughly discussed school goals, and created an action plan to take us forward. This is a two-year journey that will stimulate our thinking and help our school and community to grow.

In October, our broader collaborative work began when the total CEELI cohort gathered at Chicago Sinai Congregation. Our afternoon began with a tour of their early childhood center and was followed by a dynamic workshop by Pam Gassel of the Chicago Tribune Media Group on building relationships and viewing them as the core of our success. Of course, it wasn’t a new topic: Every educator and participant in the room had discussed the meaning of relationships at some point beforehand, in some workshop or meeting. For me, though, it was a new, fresh chance to rethink my definition of relationships and how to enter into them in the context of my work as an educator. Each piece of the workshop had value, but what struck me as most impressive was the overall sense of working together with educated, experienced, and motivated people. I left feeling moved and inspired.

The BJE-ECC has a working group of professional study groups. Each staff member sits on two different groups, working on areas important to their professional growth. One of our most recent groups is focused on working with parents. How did we begin? With a discussion about relationships: what they are, why they matter, and who are the parents our community serves. It was exciting for me to cite what I learned from Pam Gassel and my CEELI colleagues, including Pam’s stories about working with “customers,” how to personalize our encounters, and how to truly listen to others.

All of these topics were so relevant to our BJE-ECC discussion on building relationships with our peers and parents – and I know that in our future BJE-ECC meetings, what I learn from my work with the CEELI cohort will continue to add fuel to our discussions.

Each of us strives to make our classrooms, congregations, and professional lives a success, and we seek innovative means to help us to achieve this goal. Joining CEELI has added a dimension to my thinking, forcing me to dig deeper. It has permitted me to help young Jewish families engage in our Jewish community – and it has allowed me to think about how we can better our total Jewish early childhood community.

Nancy Manewith is the director of preschools at the Board of Jewish Education of Metropolitan Chicago (BJE-ECC). With a leadership team from BJE-ECC, Nancy is currently participating in the URJ’s Chicago Early Engagement Leadership Initiative (CEELI), which brings together 12 cross-denominational Jewish Early Childhood Centers from the Chicago area.