By Meredith Polsky
It was gratifying to read Carolyn Linder’s “The Many Faces of Jewish Early Childhood Education” (December 11). It is true that the benefits of the Jewish early childhood experience are often overlooked in favor of more “academic” pursuits encountered by elementary, middle and high school students (and beyond). And yet, Linder makes the extremely poignant observation that “some of our most profound successes in Jewish early childhood education (ECE) are much more subtle and have lasting ripple effects that perhaps can never be fully measured.”
Indeed, important segments of the Jewish community have come to understand that early childhood education is the most critical entry point into Jewish life for a high percentage of previously unaffiliated adults, and has the potential to significantly increase the number of young Jews engaged in ongoing Jewish learning. That is precisely why Linder’s beautiful account of diversity in Jewish early childhood programs is so poignant. It is also why I would like to challenge us to extend that ideal of diversity to include the two out of every ten Jewish families who are raising a child with special needs or disabilities.
Given what we know about Jewish early childhood education as an entry point for families, and given the rich culture and Jewish values that our ECE’s offer, imagine the drastic effects that can result when parents are told – again and again – that their child cannot be served in Jewish preschool because of their special needs, or that the school doesn’t have the resources to understand and support their child who is exhibiting challenging behavior in the classroom. What happens when these parents get the message that Jewish preschool is not for their child? What happens when we counsel them out to find a place where “their needs can be better met”? (Hint: that place doesn’t really exist.)
If, as Americans, we “pride ourselves on celebrating the diversity of our heterogeneous society,” then we also must recognize that most of our young children are going to enter public schools where inclusion is the norm. Our Jewish preschools should not only represent that diversity, but embrace it by preparing children for the realities of the rest of their school careers. Whether we believe we should be doing more outreach to Jewish families, non-Jewish families or both, 20% are likely not being captured in our recruitment efforts because of disability.
When we can embrace 100% of families – or at least give them the option to be embraced by insuring our teachers receive the training they deserve and by offering various supports for children with special needs – then we will be showcasing our rich culture, inclusive values, and the true importance of Jewish early childhood education.
Meredith Polsky is the National Director of Institutes and Training at Matan, a nonprofit organization that educates and empowers Jewish leaders, educators, and communities to create learning environments supportive of children with special needs. She also serves as the Developmental Support Coordinator at Temple Beth Ami Nursery School in Rockville, MD.