NEW YORK (JTA) – At the federation movement’s General Assembly in Jerusalem in early November, the chairman of the network did something unusual for Jewish power gatherings: He devoted the bulk of his speech to nursery school.

Calling Jewish preschool the “seedbed of our community,” the chairman of Jewish Federations of North America, Michael Siegal, pledged to raise $1 billion over the next decade for a Jewish revitalization plan with tuition-free Jewish preschool as its centerpiece. By offering free Jewish preschool to every Jewish child in America, Siegal said, “We would be opening ourselves to generation upon generation of more active, more connected, more Jewish Jews.”

But many Jewish early childhood professionals don’t see free tuition as a viable or effective strategy.

At a meeting last week in Washington of the Alliance for Jewish Early Childhood Education, representatives of several national organizations that work with Jewish preschools discussed how best to leverage Siegal’s pronouncement – which he and Jewish Federations CEO Jerry Silverman also made in an Op-Ed.

Cathy Rolland, director of early childhood for the Union for Reform Judaism and co-chair of the alliance, said the free preschool proposal has “ignited an important conversation” about the best way to support and engage Jewish youngsters and their parents. “It’s stirred up people and gotten them to find a collective voice,” she said.

In interviews with JTA, numerous Jewish early childhood leaders said they were taken by surprise by Siegal’s proposal. While they are eager to bring more families into their doors and wouldn’t turn down tuition subsidies, they told JTA that they would prefer to see investments made in program quality, professional development, teacher compensation and seeding more full-day programs that enroll not just preschool-age kids, but infants and toddlers.

“I’m thrilled the case for Jewish preschool is out there,” said Valerie Lustgarten, an education consultant who is one of five founders of the Paradigm Project, a new group advocating for Jewish early childhood education and offering coaching and other services. “But more than money, it’s about quality and engaging parents,” she said. “I don’t think Jewish families will come in just because it’s free.”

It is unclear just how many people could be served with $1 billion, as annual tuition at Jewish nursery schools ranges from $6,000-$20,000 per year, and Jewish early childhood leaders estimate there are 540,000 Jewish children under age 5 in the United States.

While most American Jewish children receive a preschool education, fewer than a quarter do so in a Jewish program, according to the latest study of the subject, in 2008. According to Rolland, enrollment has declined since then due to the recession and competition in several states from universal pre-K programs.

Studies suggest that Jewish preschool can play a vital role not just in education, but in connecting families to Jewish community. A 2010 study by Brandeis University’s Mark Rosen outlined the high significance of the first years of a child’s life in cementing family patterns and friendships. Peter Blair, one of several Jewish early childhood educators who helped Lustgarten …read more
Source: JTA


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