Beth El Nursery School, hailed for many years as one of the premiere preschools in the South Hills, will be changing this August to a day care format, hoping to boost its sagging enrollment.
The school is currently down to a total of only 30 students, representing about a 60 percent decline since the early 2000s.
While seven of the children now enrolled in BENS come from families that are members of Beth El Congregation, the rest are drawn from the wider communities of Mt. Lebanon and Scott Township.
Currently, BENS offers half-day programs for 2-, 3- and 4-year olds, with a one or two hour optional extended day for 3- and 4-year-olds. It also offers a toddler and parent class.
Next year, the new center will be open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday, although parents will have the option of choosing a shorter day for their children, said Holly Cessna, director of BENS.
While the new learning center will be open during hours that coincide with Shabbat in the winter, Cessna said that Jewish staff members would have the option of not working during those hours.
The new center will also be open year-round, as opposed to BENS’ current school calendar year.
Cessna, who was hired last May specifically to implement the transition to a full-day program, noted that the needs of the families in the community necessitated the change.
“So many families now are double-income families,” she said. “When you have a program from 9 to 11:30, working parents are not able to manage that.”
“We are extending the options for people who want full-day programming for their children,” said Debbie Scheimer, president of Beth El Congregation.
Scheimer said the congregation will invest “significant funds” to upgrade its facility so it will “meet or exceed state and national accreditation requirements.”
Accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young children since 1991, next year BENS will also be licensed by the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, allowing it to accept children from low-income families who receive state assistance from the Child Care Works subsidized child care program.
“This will let us be open to families who normally couldn’t afford our program,” Cessna said.
The new center will have a room dedicated to 1-year-olds, as well as separate rooms for 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds, Cessna said.
“There are lots of working moms,” said Monica Hyzon, BENS board chair. “This year, it became apparent that moving to a day care format was a matter of survival.”
Hyzon said the new center would maintain BENS’ current Judaic curriculum, which includes Shabbat and holiday celebrations, and Hebrew blessings before snacks.
For the last 30 years, the national trend has been for more and more preschool programs to offer full-day child care, according to Roberta Schomberg, professor and director of early childhood education at Carlow University. Carlow has provided BENS with many of its student teachers.
“There shouldn’t be any changes in the programming, actually,” Schomberg said, noting that since Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell established the Office of Child Development and Early Learning, the same guidelines apply to both preschools and day care centers.
“The issue is just the structure of the program, and the hours of learning,” Schomberg said.
The extra hours provided by a day care format often benefit children by allowing for more “one on one” time between children and their teachers, Schomberg added.
“This could help with early literacy development,” she said. For example, the extra hours could provide children with the opportunity for small reading circles, where the children could take turns sitting in a teacher’s lap, and turning the pages of the book.
For families that require full-day care for their children, Schomberg said, it is preferable to keep the kids in one location, rather than transferring them from a preschool to a babysitter’s house.
“It is better to keep children where they are than schlepping them place to place,” she said. “It is more consistent and coherent for the children.”
Other nursery schools are eyeing changes of their own.
“This is the direction that people are going,” said Jane Adams, director of St. Paul’s Episcopal Nursery School in Mt. Lebanon. Although St. Paul’s is not considering converting to a day care center format, it has added an extended day option, she said, to help families that are “juggling working full or part time.”
“I find that people take two-day classes, and then are wait-listed for the three-day classes,” Adams said. “People want more time.”
Temple Emanuel is not considering making the transition to all day care, but it does offer several extended day options to its families, Simon said.
Temple Emanuel has a combined total enrollment of about 350 children in its nursery school and its “Imagination Station” extended day curriculum. It offers families programming from 8:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., with babysitting available for one half hour before and after school.
Enrollment at Temple Emanuel has held steady even though it lost a few children because “moms had to go back to work,” Simon said. There has been no demand at her school to switch to an all day format, she said.
Simon said she is pleased that Beth El will provide another option to families in the South Hills.
“I’m glad for families that they’ll have another choice,” she said.
The Jewish Community Center of the South Hills also runs a day care center, currently enrolled to capacity at 117 children, said Robyn Chotiner, director of JCC-South Hills Early Childhood Development Center. She said it was too early to speculate as to whether its enrollment would be down next year as a consequence of Beth El’s new endeavor.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1263.)