Preschools need ‘radical hospitality’ to thrive

Jewish preschools are facing a squeeze: competition is increasing at the same time that religious affiliation is shrinking in importance. File photo.

Big changes are afoot for Jewish preschools, and your synagogue may need to adapt in order for its school to thrive.

Experts in the early childhood education field, like Mark Rosen, associate professor and director of field experience programs at Brandeis University, see Jewish preschools facing a squeeze: competition is increasing with a new nationwide focus on early education, and even for the Jewish community, a school’s religious affiliation is shrinking in importance.

Rosen says that population and cultural shifts have changed the landscape; even established schools have to make changes to remain relevant. His and other research indicates that the three highest priorities when it comes to selecting a preschool are geography, schedule (pick-up and drop-off times) and cost.

“You have a minority of parents who want a Jewish preschool,” Rosen says. “They’ll drive far and pay extra, but the percentage in that category is becoming less and less.”

Jonathan Lev, the executive director of the Boulder JCC in Colorado — which has gained national attention for its innovative preschool offerings — echoed that sentiment, pointing to research conducted by the nearby Rose Community Foundation in Denver indicating that school quality was actually a larger factor in preschool choice than Jewish identity, even among the Jewish preschool parent population.

And according to Rosen, the major Jewish institutions that house preschools in many regions have built up around concentrated wealth, leaving younger, less well-to-do families with fewer or no Jewish options. Those families are also more likely to have two working parents, making pick up and drop off time crucial. Of course, even wealthy families frequently have two working parents, a change from when many older preschools opened.
“There are Jewish schools in a lot of places that are being proactive and creative,” Rosen says. “But your average synagogue preschool doesn’t have the market research staff that a for-profit company does. So sometimes you have the opposite happening, where the school leadership cohort is aging, and the model for their school hasn’t changed to meet the shifting needs of parents.”

Lev says you can put the Boulder JCC among the former. It’s built a reputation as one of the best preschools in the area, focusing extensively on teacher retention and educational standards; 65 percent of its teachers have master’s degrees in early childhood education, according to Lev.

That’s a rarity, according to Lyndall Miller, director of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Leadership Institute in New York.

“Educators are so undervalued and high levels of education are often not required. It’s hard to prove how high your standards are if you have a lot of turnover,” Miller says.

The Boulder JCC preschool has also overhauled its appearance, opening a new facility in 2016 that’s designed to promote indoor and outdoor learning (with a learning garden and farm) and to utilize the Reggio Emilia approach, an educational philosophy in which the aesthetic of the classroom is important.
The school also offers flexible schedules.

“We wanted to serve full-time working parents, so we expanded hours to do that,” Lev says. “And we want to serve parents who may only want or need 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., so we made a conscious decision to build a program that allows for flexibility.”

Lev says that all these factors have resulted in an admissions wait list that’s ballooned since 2016.
Jewish preschools also have to compete for an increasingly diverse population, according to Miller. Interfaith marriage is more common than ever, and drawing from the non-Jewish population can sometimes make the difference between a shrinking and growing enrollment.

It makes a school’s outward presentation that much more important. Lev says that he’ll often see questions from non-Jewish parents on local online forums about how welcoming the Boulder JCC program is. So the school’s become more aware of the language it uses in marketing materials, emphasizing inclusiveness. It also added a notice on the front door making clear that the JCC is accepting of all faiths, backgrounds, and orientations.

“Schools who understand their populations, and are able to both be Jewish at their core and welcoming of different parents are the ones that are succeeding,” Miller says. “We like to call it ‘radical hospitality.’”

But sometimes it can be helpful to separate the faith from the institution, according to Miller. She says that research shows that millennials are “allergic” to institutions, and that some younger parents may be less inclined to send their children to schools operated out of synagogues.

So some preschools are getting creative in how they acclimate parents; organizing pop-up tot Shabbats in the park or putting on events at local bookstores.

“Who are we serving?” Miller asks. “It’s not just about our own existence. It’s about opening it up to this being a collaborative exercise.”

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