Continuing to BUILD Jewish Early Childhood Education

By Cathy Rolland, Mark Horowitz and Maxine Handelman

If Jewish early childhood education (ECE) is all about engaging children in meaningful learning while helping them to figuratively (and sometimes literally) play nicely together in the sandbox, then BUILDing Jewish ECE has proven to be the ultimate sandbox. The national organizations Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), JCC Association of North America, and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) serve approximately 650 early childhood programs at Reform and Conservative synagogues and JCCs across North America. Over the years, the early childhood professionals in these three organizations have learned and taught together, served on committees and collaborated on small projects. But BUILDing Jewish ECE was the first time these organizations came together in a sustained, structured way to address some of the greatest challenges in the field of Jewish early childhood education.

Ambitious Beginnings

BUILDing Jewish ECE was a groundbreaking initiative from 2014-2017 supported by the Rose Community Foundation and other funders in Denver, and led by Lisa Farber Miller, Senior Program Officer at Rose Community Foundation. BUILDing Jewish ECE involved a comprehensive partnership between the URJ, JCC Association, and USCJ. All nine Denver and Boulder synagogues and JCCs with ECE centers participated in this cross-denominational approach, giving leadership teams unique opportunities to focus on increasing enrollment and better engagement of Jewish families. At the same time, they learned innovative approaches to build stronger connections between families with young children and the Jewish community. The nine ECE centers received ongoing coaching, training and guidance from URJ, JCC Association and USCJ experts to ensure effective principles from Jewish early childhood education and family engagement were shared. In addition, consultants from the secular business world provided best practices coaching, particularly marketing, enrollment conversion and customer service, and applied them to ECE and family engagement as part of a “Toolbox of Resources” to expedite long-term growth.

Building New Habits and New Skills

Early childhood educators and directors are typically caring, warm individuals with a flair for helping a child make sense of her or his world and for supporting parents in creating successful routines and experiences for their child. These are essential skills for directing a successful early childhood program, but they alone are not sufficient. Running a school requires business know-how and organizational strategies for which ECE directors never received training. BUILDing Jewish ECE addressed this by teaching ECE directors skills necessary to attract potential families to their school and ultimately to enroll that family’s child in the school (what is known in the business as “enrollment conversion.”) Through BUILDing Jewish ECE, ECE directors and their teams learned strategies to make it very easy for a potential parent to connect with them and their school – at any time, from any online platform, and through traditional hard copy materials like signs and business cards.

BUILD teams also learned habits for tracking each and every inquiry in a systematic way. Post-it notes were banished, replaced by an integrated structure of recording inquiries so they can be organized, searched and, most importantly, followed up on without fail, in the following days, weeks and even years. BUILDing Jewish ECE provided the participating schools grant funds to implement ChildCareCRM, a web-based software designed to help child care organizations improve their marketing effectiveness and convert more inquiries into enrollments.

ECE center directors, through the initiative, learned a new language to use with prospective parents. Directors were advised to offer parents a “visit,” not a tour of the school, and to tell parents about the benefits their children and family would receive from the school, instead of just pointing out the features. Instead of showing a parent “our large playground with its three different climbing structures,” a BUILD director might say, “Your daughter Sara will build her confidence and balance as she joins her friends at the top of one of our three climbing structures.”

Early childhood directors are often left alone by their organization’s leadership, especially if they are “doing a good job” (read “making a profit”). No oversight sometimes feels good, but it also means a missed opportunity for families, who might have a stronger path toward Jewish life if the ECE center worked in partnership with the larger synagogue or JCC institution. BUILDing Jewish ECE created a clear system of teams working together, involving the executive director and/or the director’s supervisor in the elevation of the school through BUILD.

Lessons Learned from BUILDing Jewish ECE

One of the great gifts of BUILDing Jewish ECE was the foundational goal that the participating community would understand itself as a unified force to serve children and their families in a compelling and meaningful way. The ECE centers were conditioned to work together to understand quality and engagement as a right for the community and an obligation for the schools.

To that end, one of the skills we all learned was to seek an understanding of what each school’s Basic Competitive Advantages (BCA) were. An important first step for many of the schools was looking inwards and determining what was unique about the ECE center, through conversations with many stakeholders – ECE staff, parents, and even board members. Once an organization identified the qualities which made it distinct from other Jewish schools – the basic competitive advantages – as well as the features which defined the culture of the school, they were able to grapple with how to communicate that message. This newly learned marketing skill of identifying BCAs led to a journey of appreciating the notion that each school had a unique vision that would appeal to a certain segment of the population. In partnership with the other schools, the community would have an approach of early care and education that could offer something for everyone. Those families who were outside the system at present would be able to find something they were looking for that may not have been marketed effectively in the past but would now be an essential part of the community’s offerings.

Growing out of this idea were meetings of both the CEOs and executive directors of the JCCs and synagogues to find ways to work together and in “coopertition,” a word to indicate organizations that work in cooperative competition. The ECE directors met regularly not only to share best practices but to highlight the ways they could serve the community’s and not only their own individual interests. This led to a new culture of directors guiding families to other schools when it seemed that would be a better fit.

From BUILDing Jewish ECE to Standards of Excellence

BUILDing Jewish ECE helped put Jewish early childhood education and young family engagement on the national map. Based on the success that many of the BUILD leadership teams discovered when implementing the Standards of Excellence (SOEs) through Action Plans, we are experimenting with different deployment strategies in select communities across North America, especially around marketing and enrollment. The SOEs were released earlier this year for any community and ECE center to utilize as they examine their own ECE efforts.

We found effective marketing to be a critical reason for the success of BUILD, and the marketing communications section of the SOEs lifts up the essence of brand identity and provides insights to effective marketing strategies, areas that most of us who are trained in Jewish early childhood education have an little or no training in.

And now a cautionary tale: The SOEs are not designed to be used as a “report card.” Rather, they are a self-assessment tool to help organize, visualize, and track quality improvement progress for synagogues and JCCs with Jewish ECE centers. ECE centers and their leadership teams can use these standards as guidelines to determine needs, to identify specific goals, and to build action plans to achieve excellence in those areas. Most importantly, similar to a warning that we often see in commercials that display dare-devil and high speed chases, these standards should only be used when consulting with an ECE professional. More information on the SOE can be found in the introduction to the document itself.

Hopes for SOE and for the field moving forward

As the SOE’s continue to inform our cross-denominational thinking and practice, we look forward to providing new opportunities for more JCC and synagogues leadership teams to learn from and experiment with some of the best practices from the secular and Jewish world. We are already seeing positive results of SOE implementation through “action plans,” as more families with young children are building deep and authentic relationships and strong connections to one another and to our synagogues and JCCs. We hope to entice more of our partners, including our funders and other organizations, to support the sacred work of our dedicated lay and professional leaders as they continue the journey to BUILD Jewish ECE excellence! We are confident that as more communities experiment and find success with the SOE’s we will continue to collectively strengthen the Jewish Early Childhood Education and Engagement field of practice.

Cathy Rolland is director of families with young children at the Union for Reform Judaism and the inaugural president of the Early Childhood Educators of Reform Judaism (ECE-RJ), an affiliate of the URJ. Mark Horowitz is Vice President at JCC Association and Director of the Sheva Center for Innovation in Early Childhood Jewish Education and Engagement Director. Maxine Handelman served the BUILDing Jewish ECE initiative in her role as Early Childhood Education Specialist for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. She is currently the Director of Family Life & Learning at Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago.