The largest North American organization for Jewish educators is taking on the greatest challenge facing Jewish schools: employing and retaining quality teachers. The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education recently released its third semiannual progress report on Project Kavod, a three-year pilot project designed to improve the recruitment and retention of teachers working in early Jewish childhood education, and to change the “culture of employment” in Jewish preschools.
CAJE is implementing Project Kavod at four educational sites — in schools, synagogues and community centers — in South Florida, in partnership with the Miami-Dade Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, under a grant from the Covenant Foundation. The project involves gathering data about teaching conditions, raising awareness of any problems and ultimately crafting possible solutions. Although the pilot program has only reached its midpoint, organizers say it is already clear that the Jewish community faces a daunting task.
“There has been a realization that where [the working conditions for Jewish educators] are now, it’s not a good place,” said Eli Schaap, national Project Kavod coordinator and assistant executive director of CAJE.
When Project Kavod is finished, it will release its findings and make suggestions for educational centers in other cities to implement. Right now, the project is aiming primarily at diagnosing the problem.
“If you compare it to a person who’s going through therapy, self-assessment is the hardest phase,” Schaap said. “It’s also the most exciting.”
The Jewish Education Service of North America is also trying to improve the working environment for Jewish educators.
“Retaining quality educators is a national concern,” said Robert Lichtman, Jesna’s vice president for Professional Development and Advancement. Lichtman is also the director of the Jewish Educator Recruitment/Retention Initiative, which Jesna launched in 2003 in conjunction with The Covenant Foundation.
Lichtman noted that the attrition rate among public school teachers in America is between 30% and 50% within three to five years. Although there is not quantitative national study of attrition rates among Jewish educators — Jesna is commencing such a study this month — Lichtman believes that the numbers are similar to the national average.
Quality Jewish educators, however, are more difficult to find than their secular counterparts, according to experts, because of the unique skills required. They should have backgrounds not only in pedagogy but in Judaica, as well, and ideally they should hold degrees in Jewish education. All this makes Jewish educators more difficult to recruit than other teachers; it also makes it more difficult to find replacements for the large numbers of teachers who leave their jobs.
When Jewish educators leave the field, they do so because of inadequacies in salary, health insurance coverage and pension plans, as well as the lack of opportunities for professional development, according to research done by the Project Kavod staff.
In Jewish educational settings, “many of the people who make budgetary decisions have nothing to do with what [their decisions] mean on a person-by-person basis,” Schaap told the Forward.
With this in mind, the first step of Project Kavod was to promote what its organizers call the “case for change,” starting at the grass-roots level by making influential members and lay leaders in the Jewish community aware of the problems. Project Kavod staff also have developed a survey to analyze their progress.
“What’s happening right now is that the data are coming out,” Linda Shriner-Cahn, The Covenant Foundation’s director of operations, told the Forward. “The community is having the numbers crunched for them and the assumptions they have are going to shift.”
Already, the data have challenged two beliefs that Project Kavod research found to be commonly held in Jewish communities. The first misconception is that Jewish educators are not dependent on their teaching income, when in fact, more than 90% of the 700 Jewish educators surveyed consider their salary the main source of income, or an important additional source, in their households. The second misconception is that providing Jewish education is a “cash cow” for synagogues and JCCs, which is not true for any of the project’s sites. Additional funding for Jewish education will have to come from outside sources.
“The gauntlet has been thrown down,” Shriner-Cahn said. “Now the community is going to have to decide what it’s going to do.”
While teacher recruitment and retention are important issues in all Jewish schools, Project Kavod focuses on early childhood education because it is considered by many to be the entry point to Jewish life.
At the four project sites in Florida, the effectiveness of early childhood education is readily observable: “The experience families have with preschool education is truly a family experience,” Rabbi Jeffrey Falick, director of Jewish life and culture for the Dave and Mary Alper Jewish Community Center, told the Forward. “And when we introduce the concepts of Jewish celebration to the children, the parents are drawn in.”
According to Schaap, compensation for early childhood teachers is exceptionally poor — even compared to that of other teachers — making it all the more important to start there. “The salaries for people working in early childhood education is half of what day school teachers are making, and that’s not very much,” Schaap said.
“The community is kind of taking advantage of these dedicated professionals,” Lichtman said. “They’ve gone into the field because they love children, they love Jewishness and want to work with the two. And the fact that they are making $9 an hour won’t tear them away from it. It’s an embarrassment.”