Retaining and training early childhood educators is a serious and major challenge, and funders are beginning to be creative about their investment models to increase professional development and compensation for these educators. The Jewish early childhood education (ECE) space faces a similar challenge, with high stakes as well. Nearly two years ago, we shared a report detailing the Jewish Resource Specialist (JRS) Initiative in the San Francisco Bay Area, which produced a growing, networked community of educators who have enhanced Jewish ECE experiences in the Bay Area. The Initiative, led by the Early Childhood and Family Engagement (ECFE) Initiative of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties (the Federation), for which planning began in 2008, was an important addition to the growing field of Jewish ECE. Leveraging early childhood years as an opportunity for multiple interventions has demonstrated the lasting changes that can be made to the environments of students, families, and educators.
Over the last ten years, funders and organizations have helped to elevate Jewish ECE by investing time and resources to professionalize the field and support its excellence—from staff support, to curriculum support, to programs for families to help bring what is happening in the classroom back home. These advancements reflect an increased understanding of the incredible opportunity focused support for early childhood education can provide not only to families and young learners locally and nationally, but also to educators.
There is much to do in this area and many good interventions and pilots are bubbling to the surface. As the Jim Joseph Foundation continues to think about best practices in philanthropy and how to make the greatest impact in Jewish education, we are also increasingly focused on models of dissemination and adaptation. We meet regularly with funder colleagues from Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New York, Washington D.C., and elsewhere to impart learnings from each of our local investments. One way to reach the broader audiences and to expand this important work is to disseminate ideas and interventions that are ready to be tested and adapted in new and different settings. We believe that the first step in adapting a successful program model to a new city is to effectively disseminate the relevant findings from recent evaluation and research.
With that in mind, and with an updated model documentation of the JRS Initiative from Informing Change —shared recently and led expertly by Janet Harris and Denise Moyes-Schnur at the Federation—we are excited to see the continued positive outcomes of this Initiative. A third JRS cohort, which launched last year, brought the total number of Jewish ECE schools in the JRS Initiative to 21. This latest cohort supports their school communities in the same ways the past cohorts did: They deepen Jewish learning; engage families in Jewish life; and receive ongoing coaching, mentoring, and resource support. Moreover, an independent evaluation of the JRS Initiative pilot validated the fruits of this labor. As just some examples, the JRS Initiative is linked to:
Change that Lasts — Continued Investment, Continued Impact
Among the many positive outcomes, we want to focus on a specific aspect of this model—one that the model documentation terms “change that lasts.” The Jim Joseph Foundation is especially attracted to investments in organizations, programs, leaders and educators, and systems that will produce positive outcomes even after the grant period has finished. We believe this is a compelling case for potential funders and ECE programs that are considering a similar type of investment in other communities.
The ECE programs in the JRS Initiative continue to see benefits years after the end of their Initiative grant. Programs from the pilot cohort, for example, report that family engagement programs developed during their three-year grant period still serve new families at their centers. New teachers still engage new families and continue classroom programs using resources and structures put into place by the JRS educator. An important development is that ECE programs from the pilot cohort independently maintain a position in their schools, allocating the necessary financial resources to continue encouraging classroom teachers. The responsibility is typically designated to an individual classroom teacher, or shared among teachers and the school director.
Beyond these positive ongoing activities are even deeper cultural changes in ECE programs that were a part of the Initiative. “Through JRS we established some parent programs that are now integral to who this school is,” stated one school director. JRS educators from past cohorts report that the Initiative helped to increase expectations regarding the quality of Jewish education not only during specific programming but through overall classroom management. These higher expectations continue to be met with the systems and educational resources introduced. JRS educators developed new curricula, workshops, activities, and procedures to match their schools’ needs and continue to support educators to offer Jewish learning regularly. The JRS educators continue to coach and offer new resources they create to more classroom teachers so they feel comfortable discussing Jewish elements of the curriculum with parents.
One school director commented that the ECE program has more frequent and more visible Jewish components— “There’s more of a Jewish flavor here”—even three years after the grant concluded. The model documentation reports that “increased levels of Jewish content are giving greater definition to the Jewish nature of these ECE programs.”
Educators are also benefitting from the JRS Initiative because of lasting cultural changes. Teachers in ECE programs continue to be more open with each other. As one school leaders explains, “JRS inspired us to do peer-to-peer learning [among our teachers]. That changed the culture here. We now do more to support teachers to create in their own way and to help their peers.”
Professional development, including in-person seminars, individual coaching, and relevant site visits are an integral part of the Initiative. Since these opportunities are designed with the broader school in mind, not just the ECE program, they have resulted in some innovative school-wide changes. For example, after one school’s site visit to an urban Jewish teaching farm, the school’s educators realized they could use their own outdoor space to teach. Following that site visit—and prompted by the JRS approach of engaging families and inviting teacher input and creativity school-wide—the outdoor space at the school is still impacting the learning experience. A JRS faculty member says, “In the course of three years, a small side yard patch became a beautiful, natural garden. We could see that what they were doing three years later in the classrooms was much more nature-based. It has changed the school.”
As more communities around the country look to leverage the early childhood years to welcome families into Jewish life, the JRS Initiative offers a model with long-lasting impact. By offering resource specialists learning, support, and other professional development opportunities over a multi-year period, they in turn positively influence their teacher colleagues, the children and families with whom they interact and—in some cases—the larger schools and centers in which they are housed. Together, funders and organizations can continue to share our findings and elevate the place of ECE both in Jewish life and beyond the Jewish community.
For more information about the JRS Initiative, please contact Denise Moyes-Schnur at the Federation.