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JCCs Address New Challenges in the Early Childhood Marketplace

The article was originally featured in JCC Circle Summer 2013.

When in his State of the Union address, President Obama called to make “high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” he echoed the opinions of many child-development experts. The world is finally recognizing the value of a developmentally appropriate early childhood education. More state and local governments are offering free half and full-day pre-K for four year olds to ensure they are ready to learn when they enroll in school (28 percent of all four year olds attend state-financed ECE programs). Synagogues and day schools are expanding their preschool programs, adding hours and accepting younger children. Chabad has an extensive system of lowcost preschools that are easy to access. And then there is the world of for-profit preschool and daycare centers, which benefit from economies of scale and large advertising budgets.

Donna Harlev, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License
Donna Harlev, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License

While JCC early childhood programs have long enjoyed a reputation for excellence in their communities, with some running wait lists, how are they reacting to these challenges? “It’s impossible to compete with free,” says Mark Horowitz, JCC Association’s director of early childhood education and family engagement, but JCC early childhood centers are positioning themselves to remain the providers of choice of the best early childhood education. JCCs have the facilities—pool, gym, playground, classes—to create a community hub and build lasting relationships. “It’s an opportunity for families to play together,” Horowitz says. “People who make friends in pre-K stay friends.”

Preparing for Public Pre-K

Ora Cohen Rosenfeld, early childhood director at the JCC of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland, was nervous about the prospect of government-funded ECE, but her anxiety lessened as she realized that the JCC could be part of whatever happened in the field. She is making sure that their licensing is in line, Cohen Rosenfeld says, so the JCCGW school will be able to provide universal pre-K, when and if that day comes.

They don’t take advantage of a religious exemption, for instance, so they will be in a better position to accept government funding. “We are living in a more affluent area,” Cohen Rosenfeld notes, and she believes that public pre-K will be means-tested. “If it does happen,” she acknowledges, “it will have a tremendous impact on our program” but the JCC could expand its infant-care offerings, which are in high demand at many JCCs.

Offering an Extended Day

Although many states offer free pre-K, Florida is the one state without religious restrictions on providers, so it acts as a test case in some respects. In Florida, all JCCs get government funding for voluntary two and a half hour pre-K. Since almost no one comes for only two and a half hours anymore, the JCCs offer wrap-around programs to make up an extended day.

In Akron, Ohio, the Shaw JCC does much the same, according to Lori Bernstein, director of early childhood and school age services. They serve all the school districts in the area and coordinate with the state developmental disabilities program. “We offer services prior or afterwards,” Bernstein says, including a before and after-school program for children from pre-K through ninth grade. Seventy-five percent of her 181 students are at the JCC more than five hours per day.

Jonathan Bell, Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License

The Appeal of Jewish Values… and Quality

Many of the families at the Akron JCC preschool are not Jewish, but “we have a very Jewish-values mission,” Bernstein says. “We want children and families to grow up in the JCC.” To accomplish that, she schedules lots of family programming when parents are available—Sundays and evenings—and ties food into everything.

The JCC and the school celebrate the Jewish holidays, and while the early learning center acknowledges what is going on in the lives of the children at Christmas or Halloween, Bernstein grounds these events in universal values. “We are very fortunate in our community positioning and our member support,” Bernstein says.

The ECE center at the Aaron Family JCC of Dallas is welcoming more non-Jewish families as well. “Non-Jewish families are choosing us because of our quality and hours,” says director Tara Ohayon, and she finds that they are enthusiastic about participating in Shabbat and holiday celebrations. Unlike most JCC schools, Dallas is seeing demand for three and even two-day offerings. Ohayon finds that the number of stay-at-home parents is increasing in her area, but she doesn’t see any relation to unemployment.

The major competitive pressure Ohayon is feeling is from prep-style preschools, which appeal to parents trying to get their children into elite private schools. Such preparatory ECE centers focus on rote skills and memorization. Ohayon believes that urging three and four year olds to memorize letters and sums is developmentally inappropriate. When parents come to tour the JCC school, she does a lot of educating, citing the latest research about child development.

“Mark [Horowitz] has been very helpful to me,” she says, adding that she learned at the JCCs of North America Professional Conference that this is something everyone is dealing with. “Our kids who are in a developmentally appropriate program are getting into those elite schools,” she adds.

An Early Learning Framework Exclusive to JCCs

Ohayon was introduced to Sheva—JCC Association’s new paradigm for early childhood education—at the Professional Conference. Eighty-four ECE professionals, representing half the JCCs with early childhood programs, attended the Conference and focused on Sheva. Almost all of them are participating in the ongoing learning groups that are at the heart of the new approach.

According to Horowitz, just as An Ethical Start® did, Sheva integrates Jewish ethics and values into early childhood education. Sheva enables teachers to communicate the latest research on child development to families, as well as incorporating a real connection to Israel.

Other Jewish schools don’t have as rich a network, says Horowtiz, citing the professional development at the program’s core. “We have ongoing study and learning groups that will have an impact down the road.”

Rosenfeld agrees. “We’re exploring how to use Sheva to get out to the community what our core values are and how our program supports them.” Lori Bernstein feels that Sheva is a natural part of their philosophy at the Shaw JCC. “We’re unfolding Sheva for the staff and working to pull pieces apart,” she says. They will take next year to look at individual elements “and we’ll personalize it for our JCC in Akron.”

According to Horowitz, the best early childhood education appreciates the child’s natural development and creates learning programs that respect those developmental stages. Sheva is “a comprehensive, holistic way of looking at children and their families,” he says.

It’s also a powerful way for JCCs to distinguish their ECE centers in an increasingly competitive environment.

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