NOVA kids flourish in preschool partnership

Beth El preschool
The Beth El and JCC preschool displays a presentation about the Reggio Emilia approach. Photo by Ali Kerlin

For the past seven years, the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia has partnered with Beth El Hebrew Congregation to operate a preschool in the synagogue’s building. With enrollment of 75 children, the program gives the Fairfax-based JCC a presence in Alexandria. For Beth El, the preschool gives potential members exposure to the congregation that they might not otherwise have and may encourage them to join.

The full-day program runs year round. “What people like about us is that we’re open pretty much 50 weeks out of the year,” accounting for Jewish and national
holidays, says Dina Backer, the school’s director.

Backer says there has been discussion of whether this JCC satellite preschool program could succeed in a different congregation. An earlier attempt in Ashburn didn’t work out, she said. In that situation, the JCC only rented space, whereas the agency has a full partnership with Beth El, she says. The JCCNV provides the teaching staff and Beth El provides custodial care and maintenance.

“The partnership makes everyone vested” in the program’s success, Backer says.
Many of the kids in the preschool are children of Beth El members, and they often continue on to the Beth El Hebrew School. In fact, of the 13 graduates of last year’s
preschool, the nine whose parents are Beth El members are enrolled in the school.
She says the school is the only one in the area that accepts enrollees as young as 18 months old by September.

While the school offers rolling enrollment, beginning in December for returning students and in January for new students, “We’re basically full for this year,” says Backer.
The school operates on the increasingly popular Reggio Emilia approach. The philosophy, created in Italy in the wake of World War II, focuses on the assumption that children’s personalities form in their early years, and that they should have a say in how that formation takes place.

Students of Reggio Emilia schools play a big role in deciding what happens during class, what projects they undertake and what they learn about.

“Kids really flourish and bloom when they’re involved in their learning,” says Backer. “It’s all about exploration and creativity.”

Backer says the school emphasizes hands-on art projects that encourage creativity and avoid what she calls “pre-cut art projects,” which achieve the same result for
each child.

After this program, Backer says, “we turn out kids that really know how to think.” n
To learn more about the Beth El preschool, visit

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