“So exciting, so rich and right”: Jewish Afterschool is Here to Stay – Funders Please Take Note

Courtesy Jewish Kids Groups

By Dr. Laurie Fisher

When it came time for me to choose a dissertation topic, I knew I wanted to focus on supplementary Jewish education, having spent over eighteen years in the field. A friend suggested Jewish afterschool programs, and quickly I began looking into the Nitzan Network. Immediately I was intrigued, and a dissertation topic was born. Although I have now completed my dissertation, I feel there is more work to be done with these effective and innovative programs. With greater attention and increased funding, they can be seen as one aspect of the future of Jewish education.

I went into my research with two questions: (1) Does the Jewish afterschool model of education offer an effective means of supplementary Jewish education? (2) As an alternative to other forms of supplementary Jewish education, what are the key aspects of the model that contribute to its potential effectiveness?

In exploring these programs, I used a method of qualitative research called grounded theory. Grounded theory is an inductive method, which means that I gathered the data and then let it speak to me without forming any theories beforehand. My theories would come at the end after I had analyzed my data thoroughly. Some of the ideas that came out of the data were surprising while others were somewhat expected. I spent time interviewing each of the executive directors of five programs in the network and observing at their sites.

Very little academic research has been done on this model of Jewish supplementary education. I know of only two pieces. One was published in the Journal of Jewish Education and the other in Jack Wertheimer’s excellent collection Learning and Community: Jewish Supplementary Schools in the 21st Century. I wanted to share my research (here is a link to my unpublished dissertation, you need permission from me to quote from it) with the Jewish community, especially the philanthropic community, as it is exciting to have this type of academic evidence to back up the anecdotal evidence that has been written about so far in eJP.

In answering my two research questions, I found that not only is the afterschool model indeed an effective one, but also why and how it is effective. Let me share with you the key aspects that contribute to its effectiveness. While each of the programs is unique in terms of geographic location, families served, community ethos, leadership of the director, and particulars of the program, they all had certain key aspects in common which I believe make a framework for this model or a grounded theory of the Jewish afterschool.

First, I looked for themes that emerged from the data. Each of these topics is a theme that was relevant to at least two of the programs, if not to all five. The topics were:

  • guiding values
  • privileging the child’s voice
  • modalities for learning
  • social emotional learning
  • Hebrew infusion
  • relationships, community, and authenticity
  • child-centered learning environment
  • quality of teaching staff and professional development
  • leadership qualities needed to be a director of an afterschool program
  • hyper-locality of the programs

From there I was then able to develop a theory of the Jewish afterschool grounded in the data which included these key aspects:

  1. social emotional learning
  2. community building and authenticity of relationships
  3. child-centered learning and whole-child learning
  4. privileging the child’s voice
  5. hyper-locality of the programs
  6. logistics of pick up from school
  7. leadership qualities of directors
  8. quality and experience of educators

I divided these aspects into two concerns: the philosophical/child-based concern and the logistical concern. It is the synergy of these two concerns that makes the Jewish afterschool so unique and effective. There are other programs that use SEL and privilege the child’s voice, but they do not provide transportation from school each day and care five days a week or an authentic Jewish kid’s community. This is definitely a case where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The children in these programs do not want to leave at 6:00 when it is time to go home. One director told me that she receives complaints from parents that their children do not want to leave when they come to pick them up. She, of course, thought this was a good sign!

This is a model that works by providing something that parents and families desperately need and desire – quality afterschool care and excellent Jewish education. More funding should be invested in this model around the country as a way to both bring in unaffiliated and unengaged families. Tuition alone does not cover expenses. Most of the programs that I studied are expanding to include new sites in new neighborhoods. The need is clearly there for this model of Jewish education. I spoke informally with parents for whom this was their child’s only Jewish education and with parents for whom this was another great resource in their child’s Jewish educational world of camp, Hebrew school, and Sunday school. The contact hours that educators have with the children in these programs allows for deep, consistent, and truly meaningful interaction and engagement with both Jewish content and Jewish kids and adults that cannot be found anywhere else except in a camp-like environment. This, though, has the advantage of happening every week, every day, during school holidays, throughout the year.

We could all get behind this model in the Jewish community in terms of educating our children. Providing busy working parents with a safe way for their children to be transported from school into a Jewish kids community for fun and engaging afterschool time is a win-win for everyone. Now we have more academic research to back that statement up.

Dr. Laurie Fisher is currently an adjunct instructor at Gratz College and an independent researcher. She can be reached at laurie.l.fisher.68@gmail.com.