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The Challenging Financial Model of Jewish Early Childhood Education

When she sees how excited her 7-year-old son, Isaac, is to go with her to pick up his younger sister, Tzipporah, at his old preschool, Ginna Green is convinced that she and her husband made the right decision to send their children to Gan Mah Tov, in Oakland, Calif.

Green is confident that the Jewish foundation Isaac received at Gan Mah Tov helped him to succeed at his elementary school and to develop a love of being Jewish. It has also served as a gateway to ongoing Jewish life and learning for the whole family. But as a parent, she admits, “We are shouldering the financial burden at the expense of having more children,” and as an active lay leader at Congregation Beth Jacob, the host institution for Gan Mah Tov, she knows that for North America’s Jewish early childhood education (ECE) system, the challenges extend beyond high tuitions, with the current economic climate not making things any easier.

Teacher Quality vs. Pay Rate

Sticker shock has trickled down to Jewish ECE, or preschool, programs from Jewish day schools; however, while parents are paying anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 per child per year for Jewish preschool, according to Janet Harris, director of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco’s ECE Initiative, few ECE teachers are making a living wage. Harris says that the average national Jewish ECE teacher’s wage is $17.50 per hour. Most preschool teachers put in 30 hours per week or less. “And having a higher degree doesn’t really make much of an impact,” she added. “It might go up to $20 or $21.” By comparison, the average day school teacher makes roughly $50,000 to $70,000 annually, according to a study done by Sacha Litman, whose firm, Measuring Success, provides data-driven consultation to non-profits.

Low compensation for ECE educators is a national problem, not just a Jewish one. Caren Gans, director of the Leslie Family Early Childhood Education Center in Palo Alto, Calif., said, “We have many wonderful teachers who have been with us for years, but with our expansion on our new campus, we need to be able to attract and retain more teachers.… We’re finding it more and more difficult to attract new, high-quality teachers.”

The problem is especially acute in regions like hers, where the cost of living is high. But Gans can’t offer her teachers more, because she budgets for the low student-teacher ratios necessary for optimum learning and the benefits packages she feels her staff deserves.

Possible Solutions

Gans’s preschool participates in the JCC Association’s An Ethical Start program, a curriculum for children, parents and teachers based on the ancient Jewish text Pirkei Avot. The school also participates in the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, a national program that melds Jewish ideas and values with the Reggio Emilia education philosophy, which is based on the belief that the early years of development are paramount to children forming who they are as people, and stresses a self-guided curriculum.

Experts in the study of Jewish ECE believe that the solution to the financial challenges facing preschools lies with the goals that initiatives like these are designed to achieve: improvement in the quality of education, expansion of opportunities for parents to learn with their children and become more involved in the Jewish community, and strengthening of ties between ECE centers and their host institutions (mainly Jewish community centers and synagogues). These things, it is hoped, will influence donors to view Jewish ECE as an important long-term investment and to infuse schools with money.

“The affordability and compensation issues can only be addressed if we shift the paradigm,” asserted Eli Schaap, program officer for education and research at the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. This shift involves host institutions starting to look at their preschools through an assets-and-liabilities lens rather than through one that focuses on profits and losses. “It can no longer be about preschools breaking even, or, as in many cases, subsidizing the JCCs or synagogues. You can’t look at Jewish ECE in a one-year snapshot. [It] is a capital investment. Its long-term payoff — if it is done right — is enormous for not only the host institution, but also the greater Jewish community,” he said.

It’s Not All About the Money

Research has shown that salary is not the only thing driving ECE educators; staff satisfaction is high, and turnover is low, in schools with good leadership and a clear vision of excellence. Similarly, although hard-to-meet requests for scholarships are up, families have not left in droves, especially where a sense of community within the school is strong. “Even when the cost became a real challenge for us with two kids there at the same time, we were determined to make it work,” said Meredith Polsky, a parent at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Md.

But Ilene Vogelstein, who directs a professional network called the Alliance for Jewish Early Childhood Education, cautions that most parents are unlike Green and Polsky. She cites a 2002 study by Pearl Beck, published by the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life. The survey indicates that for the most part, cost and convenience are stronger motivators than Jewish content when choosing a preschool. Therefore, Vogelstein is closely watching how the push for mandatory publicly funded universal pre-kindergarten will affect the future of the currently greater than 100,000 student-strong Jewish ECE system.

Major Jewish foundations may be watching, too, but they are not waiting. They are using their dollars, very small in comparison with some $1 billion flowing through Jewish ECE centers, to leverage the system. The San Francisco-based Jim Joseph Foundation has invested $6.9 million in Jewish ECE , including the ECE Initiative and the Jewish ECE Initiative. In response to the serious challenges posed by a dearth of professionally trained preschool directors and by young people choosing to pursue careers in ECE, the foundation recently announced as part of its larger grants that the Jewish Theological Seminary will be developing a first-ever master’s degree in Jewish ECE program, and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion will be developing a new certificate in Jewish ECE program for teachers already in the field.

“Jewish ECE is aligned with our vision” of increasing the number of young Jews engaged in ongoing Jewish learning, said Sandra Edwards, JJF’s associate director. “In pursuing that vision, we believe that a portion of JJF funding will be well spent on enhancing the quality of the Jewish early childhood experience, particularly by upgrading the preparation of pre-school educators.”

Renee Ghert-Zand is a writer, Jewish educator and community professional. She blogs at Truth, Praise and Help.


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