Despite volumes of neuroscience research pointing to the significance of a child’s first few years in determining his or her future success, early childhood programs tend to be the Rodney Dangerfield of American education.
Jewish ones don’t fare much better than their secular counterparts on the respect meter. Salaries are generally low, and while no authoritative data is available on the subject, by most accounts only a minority of Jewish families enrolls their children in Jewish preschools. And the field attracts little philanthropic support. Indeed, one of the few national efforts to promote and improve Jewish preschools, the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative (JECEI), closed in 2011 due to lack of funding.
A new program whose acronym — JECELI — has one additional letter, is offering some hope for the field, however. Funded by the San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation and run jointly by the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College, the Jewish Early Childhood Educators Leadership Institute brings new and aspiring directors of Jewish preschools from throughout the United States for studying, mentorship and community-building over the course of 15 months.
The Jewish Week spoke with JECELI’s director, Lyndall Miller, who is in the midst of selecting her second cohort of fellows.
Q: Why don’t more people care about early childhood education?
A: One reason I’m convinced of is that young children don’t rob liquor stores. You pay attention to adolescents because they can make trouble for everybody… Society is very focused on the presenting problems rather than preventing problems.
I don’t think most Jewish parents are worried their child will grow up to rob a liquor store. The problem I’m guessing in Jewish families is not that the kids aren’t going to preschool, but that they’re going to secular ones.
That’s right. The selling point I can make in the Jewish world is if you want people to grow up and be practicing Jews who are interested in Jewish life, you have to invest in Jewish early childhood programs.
I’ve heard this is a field facing a retirement crisis.
We have a crisis on two levels. Many of the directors we currently have are starting to age out and it is becoming challenging in today’s economy and today’s society — people need to make a living wage and it’s hard to get young people into the field altogether. Even more critical to me is the fact that there’s a lot of discussion about the vitality of the Jewish community, concerns about assimilation and what’s happening on college campuses, and yet some of the most dramatic engagement with Judaism can and does often happen in our early childhood programs.
Do you have studies proving that early childhood programs spark Jewish engagement?
There are studies that show this is a time — when their children are young or are babies — when parents are trying to answer questions about their own identity and what they want the identity of their children to be formed around. The Jewish early childhood program offers a wonderful gateway to synagogue communities and just to a world where they can find frameworks for helping develop meaning for the lives of their families right now. … This is when we have the best chance to give children and their parents the tools to live their lives. It’s a second chance with parents who are discovering they have to know who they are and how to explain their approach to life to a child.
Besides the retirement crisis, what are some of the other challenges facing Jewish early childhood education?
We need ways to help teachers on site in these schools have access to ongoing learning, both Judaic and in child development and early childhood education. They will often go to conferences or workshops, but there need to be support systems in place that involve the entire institution in which the early childhood program is housed to help this learning go forward. In different corners, there needs to be a re-ordering of budget priorities. We need funding to allow for release time for teachers to prepare, study and develop the kind of community we’re talking about.