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Using data to guide strategic grantmaking in Jewish early childhood education

In Short

Proper research can lead to better, more attractive options for Jewish preschools and daycares

We lead three organizations — Koret Foundation, Rodan Family Foundation and Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta — committed to supporting Jewish life in the Bay Area, in the SF East Bay Area, and in metropolitan Atlanta, respectively. A few years ago, independent of each other, we all wanted to gain a deeper understanding of the Jewish early childhood education (ECE) ecosystem in the regions we serve, knowing that Jewish ECE is a critical entry point for families into Jewish life.

As we each began our own journeys in this space, we wanted to first gather data to understand the needs of our communities and ultimately make informed, strategic decisions. To do this, we each engaged Rosov Consulting to build our knowledge of the ECE marketplace. We thought it would be useful to share our research and how we are each beginning to act on the findings.

To be informed, you need data
Our organizations each wanted to make data-driven funding decisions and yet comprehensive data on the variety of ECE centers did not exist. In each community, Rosov Consulting mapped the ECE centers using public census data, PJ Library data, and local federation demographic studies. They also collected extensive inventories of each ECE center, asking questions on enrollment, teacher pay, retention, tuition, student demographics and more. Some of us also had Rosov Consulting speak directly to parents (in interviews and focus groups) to hear firsthand from families why they chose or didn’t choose to attend a Jewish ECE program.

Data and research open eyes
The Rodan Family Foundation’s research in ECE showed that East Bay Jewish ECE offerings were only reaching 5% of Jewish families (compared to the national average of 20%). It also revealed that 20% of current teachers were expected to either leave their current role or retire within the next year, pointing to an urgent need to invest in teacher retention and pipeline-building. The research also showed that moving the ECE sector forward required pulling different levers across reach, quality, accessibility, and affordability. In San Francisco, the Koret Foundation piloted funding for more Jewish professional development for the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco’s ECE educators, recognizing that most of the educators were not Jewish themselves. Through the work with Rosov, Koret was interested in gaining a deeper understanding of the family and parent experience, along with comparing the ECE trends identified in the Rodan work in the East Bay to the other Bay Area counties. In Atlanta, the team at the federation learned about the differences in quality from one ECE center to the next, the location of centers, and their ability to attract and retain teachers. All of these factors influence the family experience. If any one of these factors is not operating optimally, the Jewish ECE ecosystem can break down.

After the data gathering and research process, we each held important meaning-making sessions with Rosov to ask questions. What did the research say about the quality of local ECE centers? About the needs of teachers and education leaders? About why parents were or were not choosing Jewish ECE?

Key findings can surprise, affirm, and bring clarity around challenges
We each gained a much deeper understanding of what many ECE directors experience daily — low bandwidth, challenges attracting teachers and frequent turnover. Each director felt this for themselves, challenging their own morale and desire to stay in the field. When Rodan shared research with the East Bay leaders, there was a sort of “collective validation” among the directors. For Atlanta, the mapping showed that although the programs collectively are under capacity, many of the ECE programs have waiting lists. In San Francisco, Koret also discovered that the perception of lack of diversity in Jewish preschools affected enrollment, but did not reflect reality. 

All of our organizations learned about barriers to enrollment (which as we share below gave us some actionable items.) We know that convenience drives much of the decision about where a family enrolls their child. Unfortunately, there are many “ECE deserts” where a significant population of Jewish families with young kids now reside and no Jewish early childhood center exists. Many families also are unaware of financial aid, don’t think they would qualify or find the process to apply too cumbersome. Still other families said that the days closed for the Jewish holidays were difficult to manage. 

Making informed next steps
The research will absolutely guide the next phase of investment. 

Atlanta is moving forward with both minor (relatively speaking) and more ambitious projects. It launched a disability inclusion initiative to train teachers to better serve individuals with learning differences. To address one of the barriers to entry, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta is exploring how it could offer operating hours without compromising the host institutions’ religious needs or investing in some kind of community program that’s open on those days when other programs are closed. The federation also is considering ways to invest further in teachers, through a “pipeline partnership initiative” with a local university that would fund individuals who commit to work in Jewish education.

The SF East Bay data helped the Rodan Family Foundation focus investments and measure impact. Rodan recognized a need to deploy an ecosystem-wide high-level approach to address the gaps in Jewish ECE in the East Bay. The team put out two RFPs to help current Jewish preschools add more students within their current footprints. In addition to these capacity grants, and similar to Atlanta’s desired “pipeline partnership initiative,” Rodan partnered with the American Jewish University and the Bay Area Federation on a pilot program that funded ten East Bay educators to earn their master’s in Jewish ECE. Each educator is receiving a meaningful pay increase upon graduation funded initially by Rodan and, eventually, by the host organization, a significant shift towards increasing teacher compensation.

The Bay Area-wide research conducted by Koret, in combination with the Rodan East Bay programs, led to the creation of EarlyJ, a new initiative funded in partnership with the Koum Family Foundation, designed to transform the reach and quality of Jewish ECE in the Bay Area. Koret’s research, just recently completed, will be rolled out to the community in the coming months, in partnership with EarlyJ.

Our communities are experiencing the positive results of thoughtful, evidence-based investments in Jewish ECE. In this important field — which for too long did not receive the attention it deserves — understanding the needs of young families, educators, and other factors in the marketplace is critical to making strategic future investments that will help our communities thrive across generations.

Danielle Foreman is chief program officer of the Koret Foundation. Elana Schuldt is president and CEO of the Rodan Family Foundation. Rich Walter is chief of programs and grantmaking at Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.