The Growth of Jewish Early Childhood Education in the City of Bridges

via WikiMedia

By Carolyn Linder

Visitors to Pittsburgh are often surprised to discover that our city is bursting with bridges, a total of 446 to be exact. We are officially the city with the most bridges in the world, with even more than Venice, Italy. For many residents, the bridges represent the city’s historic ties with industrial production, engineering, and steel. For Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, the bridges serve as a metaphor for our ongoing work in enhancing the quality and impact of Jewish early childhood education.

Our community’s path toward excellence in Jewish early childhood education is rooted in the fundamental belief that young children are strong, capable, and filled with an incredible sense of wonder. We strongly advocate that young children, alongside educators, should be co-constructors of their educational experiences. Our shared communal goals seek to inspire our educational community to create flexible, relationship-driven learning environments that foster creativity, celebrate each young child’s identity, and reflect each school’s unique values. We do not seek to set standards by means of achievement targets. We see these early learning years as an opportunity to foster critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration.

At the very core of any quality program is its staff. A quality early childhood education program supports its staff with opportunities to continue to study and grow in their field, as well as with adequate pay and benefits. Low compensation for early childhood education educators is a national problem, not just a Jewish one, and certainly not one that is unique to our community. Low wages and limited or no benefits for Jewish early childhood educators create a strong barrier for individuals entering the profession. The reality is that quality care is expensive because quality care requires people of ability and training, who must be paid adequately if they are to be attracted to this field of work. Through our ongoing commitment to improving the quality of education, to increasing meaningful opportunities for Jewish living and learning, to strengthening the ties between the early childhood education program and its host institution, to creating effective and targeted marketing strategies, we hope to begin to bridge the divide among compensation and retention of educators by helping to influence perceptions about Jewish early childhood education as an important long-term investment.

As a result of our commitments, a pilot project that started six years ago in three Pittsburgh Jewish early childhood education centers has now grown into an initiative at nine of our eleven programs. Our community’s path toward excellence has meaningfully engaged families who are raising young Jewish children and seeks to increase the number of those choosing to send their children to a Jewish early childhood education program. There are essential requirements for this work in order for it to be deep and authentic. These include synergy within each early childhood education program and its host institution, a significant financial investment by these groups as well as the larger community, and a tremendous commitment from all stakeholders.

We remain focused on interlocking strategies for the greatest impact by bridging together key, but often siloed, aspects of this work. Last year, under the auspices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, nine directors from our community’s early childhood education programs worked together to create shared communal goals for excellence in Jewish early childhood education. These goals resulted in standards that articulate a deep commitment to examining and implementing the best practices of teaching and learning in a nurturing environment which provokes exploration, experimentation, problem-solving, negotiation, communication, and collaboration. We strive to create rich environments imbued with Jewish values where all young children learn, play, and grow together. Our collaborating directors then created rubrics by which these goals could be measured, allowing each center to assess its progress as it continues on its own plan for growth. We have intentionally chosen not to create or recreate an accreditation process, but rather to focus our efforts on an ongoing process that fosters a culture of reflection and continuous improvement.

This effort – the Early Childhood Education Rubric Program – identifies key elements across all of our nine programs and allows us to define standards that will guide even higher levels of excellence while maintaining and cultivating each program’s unique identity. Ultimately, our work will allow us to bridge together three core components that have emerged: quality early childhood education, engagement of families in meaningful Jewish living and learning experiences, and shared leadership. The level of collaboration among the diverse participating programs is unprecedented, and it underscores how dedicated each institution is to providing quality and collaborative education with high family participation through meaningful Jewish living and learning opportunities.

Following this yearlong revisionary process, the programs recently participated in a comprehensive baseline assessment measured against our shared communal goals. Conducted by our outside assessor, Dr. Roberta Goodman, the purpose of the assessment was to get a picture “at this time” of what each Jewish early childhood center looked like in relation to our shared communal goals. The leaders of each school can use this information as they determine logical next steps to further strengthen their programs. Over time, this process will allow the schools to see where and how they have grown. The candor of what was shared by each school through photo documentation, evidence gathering, observations, and interviews made this process authentic and powerful.

Each center then received an individual and detailed assessment report. With support provided by a consultant through the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, this information is enabling each school to build an individualized, multi-year growth plan. By participating in a cyclical, data-driven quality improvement process, each center is systematically and intentionally improving services and increasing positive outcomes for the young children and families it serves. Assessment, reflection, planning, and implementation are all part of a continuous cycle of improvement, a commitment of striving for excellence. Some programs are working comprehensively and simultaneously on many goals, while others are focusing their efforts on a smaller number of targeted, specific goals. Our Federation has partnered with the schools by creating and implementing the assessment process and by helping to support the implementation of the growth plans. By identifying specific tasks, evidence of success, timeline, individuals involved, and budget, each school’s growth plan has a particular focus and intentionality. The growth plans will also address the ongoing need for targeted professional development in many forms (i.e., coaching, consultation, communities of practice, professional networks, conferences/workshops/courses, site visits to other settings, study seminars, etc.).

As we now have a strong infrastructure in place to help support these programs on their continuum toward educational excellence, the next bridge for us to cross is to better understand and address existing barriers which may be preventing more families from enrolling. From lessons learned, we know that many factors go into a family’s decision regarding the selection of an early childhood education program. Factors such as geographic access, hours of operation, affordability, and quality significantly influence families’ decision-making. Therefore, in tandem with our early childhood education programs, we launched a yearlong mystery shopper program. Mystery shopping is a way for us to gather objective feedback from families on sales and customer experience performance in the marketplace. Used by industries providing services for their customers, this process produces both quantitative and qualitative data. Our program is designed to measure how families see the early childhood education programs in web, telephone, and in-person interactions. The data obtained from this study will help to guide our thinking and planning around such areas as marketing, customer service and retention, enrollment conversion, and family engagement. Ultimately, with this data we will be in a more competitive position when serving the educational needs of our families.

The success of a community-based effort relies, in part, on bridging together broader supports and services. To be successful, an initiative has to meet the needs of the community, and sustaining a community-based initiative requires intentional and ongoing effort.

Carolyn Linder has been in the field of Jewish early childhood education for over 30 years. As the director of early childhood education at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, she brings her passion and experience by providing leadership to the Jewish early childhood learning community and helps to develop the highest-quality programs for its youngest learners and their families.

This article was originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary.