No latchkey kids

New initiative sees after-school programs as key to Jewish education

Atlanta-based Jewish Kids Groups looks to expand nationwide with new grant from Marcus Foundation

The school day ends at 3 p.m., but the workday doesn’t end until 5 p.m. – what’s a parent to do? It’s certainly not a new struggle, but the Jewish Kids Groups is hoping to provide a solution: Jewish after-school programs.

JKG has run these programs in the Atlanta area since 2012, providing afternoon care three days a week for hundreds of children each year from pre-K to 10th grade. “Jewish after-school programs provide pick-up from school, healthy snacks, homework help, playtime, and also deep Jewish education and experiences through camp-style programming,” Rachel Dobbs Schwartz, JKG’s chief innovation officer, told eJewishPhilanthropy.

“The original idea here was to create a program that feels like a fun, exciting part of the everyday routine that teaches Jewish education and provides families with something they need, which is childcare to the end of the workday,” Dobbs Schwartz said.

Now, after receiving a grant from the Marcus Foundation, the organization is looking to expand these programs nationwide beginning this upcoming school year with an initiative known as the Jewish After School Accelerator.

“We’ve built a successful program here in Atlanta, and people have been reaching out for many years to discuss replicating the program,” Ana Robbins, founder and executive director of JKG, said in a statement. “In 2019, our professional team and board of directors decided it was time to figure out how we could help other communities establish Jewish after-school programs. Under the leadership of Rachel Dobbs Schwartz, JKG’s Chief Innovation Officer, the Jewish After School Accelerator was born, with the goal of making it easy and affordable for synagogues across the country to do just that.”

Through the Jewish After School Accelerator, JKG will help up to 11 organizations set up their own after-school programs. These can be synagogues, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish federations or any other relevant group. Applications for the accelerator are open through April 19, and dozens of organizations have already applied or expressed an interest, Dobbs Schwartz said.

If selected, participating organizations will receive “guidance from experts and collaborate with other cohort members to recruit, train, and retain staff; structure transportation plans; customize the student curriculum; and market the after-school program to families. Accelerator participants will receive matching grants of up to $100,000 over three years to offset start-up costs,” according to JKG.

Bernie Marcus, chairman of the Marcus Foundation and co-founder of the Atlanta-based Home Depot, said the program offered “an opportunity to unite education and childcare with Jewish learning,” which would “grow children’s love of Judaism as they themselves grow.”

JKG’s plan is to select the 11 participating organizations quickly and begin working with them in May to develop their programs so they can open their after-school programs in August or September, whenever the school year starts in their area, Dobbs Schwartz said.

Academically, these after-school programs are meant to lie somewhere between the most common Jewish education options currently available: Sunday Hebrew schools and Jewish day schools. Students learn “the basics of Judaism: the calendar, Hebrew, the holidays, basic texts and Bible stories, prayer and all of the lifecycle events,” Dobbs Schwartz said.

But according to Dobbs Schwartz, the magic of these programs lies in the fact that they fulfill a need that most parents already have, unlike a Sunday religious school that has to be squeezed into a family’s already packed schedule. “Parents need after-school care and parents need Jewish experiences for their kids that work with their schedules. This does both of those things,” she said.

“The kids are getting between three and four hours of Jewish enrichment and experiences every day, and they’re also getting that as part of their daily routine. The result is deeper connections and understanding of how Judaism fits into daily life and how it’s applicable. And it becomes much less of an ask for families and more just a part of their lives,” Dobbs Schwartz said.

Andy Deutsch, who currently has two children enrolled in a JKG after-school program and a third who is likely to do so as well once he’s old enough, agreed. “It’s convenient for us as parents, and it’s building our kids’ Jewish knowledge and Jewish foundation in a way that feels relevant, inclusive and fun,” he told eJP.

Deutsch acknowledged he was somewhat biased, as he serves on JKG’s board of directors, but said that his children – a 10-year-old girl and almost-6-year-old boy – were developing a “lovely relationship with Judaism” as a result of the program.

“My kids get more than eight hours of Jewish curriculum by going to JKG three days a week,” he said, adding that he believed the quality of Jewish education was “leaps and bounds better” than Sunday Hebrew schools and that his kids truly enjoy going to JKG.

In Atlanta, JKG is a standalone program, meaning it is open to the entire community and draws students from all denominations and family backgrounds. The organizations that can apply through the Jewish After School Accelerator can also be open to everyone and pluralistic or they can identify with a particular movement, Dobbs Schwartz said.

The JKG curriculum is nondenominational, focusing on the basic building blocks of Jewish knowledge, but it can also be adapted to fit the specific needs of the community, she said.
The curriculum, which was developed by JKG’s director of education, Jordana Heyman, is also designed in a way to allow for teachers who don’t necessarily have a strong Jewish background to make it easier to find staff, according to Dobbs Schwartz.

“Great educators know that you don’t have to be an expert in all of the material to be able to impart it well to other people,” Dobbs Schwartz said. ”You need to be ahead of the game and you need to have support. So those are things that we provide through the curriculum.”

The Jewish After School Accelerator is meant to be viable in Jewish communities of different sizes. “The budget model is built to start with 15 students and to reach sustainability at an enrollment of 45 children at three days a week,” Dobbs Schwartz said. “So I think that this is totally appropriate for mid-size and even smaller but active Jewish communities.”

Tuition for the after-school programs will be set by the participating organizations based on their individual costs and expenses to ensure that they are ultimately profitable. (In Atlanta, JKG charges between $257 and $653 per month, depending on how many days a week the student attends the program.)

Dobbs Schwartz said the first few months in the program would be more intensive as the participating organizations figure out the logistics of running an after-school program; then JKG would remain involved but in more of a support capacity.

“Those first five, six months we are taking organizations every step of the way through workshops and individualized coaching sessions around all of the big topics that are required to start one of these programs, including things like how do I build relationships with local public schools and PTAs? How do I figure out transportation? What does enrollment look like? What kind of teachers am I hiring?” Dobbs Schwartz said.

“Our goal is to get these programs off the ground and successful.”