Early childhood survey charts potential, challenges for Jewish schools

Early childhood survey charts potential, challenges for Jewish schools

A survey of preschools and educators in Jewish Pittsburgh found that the programs here have much potential, but need considerable work.
Pat Bidol-Padva, executive director of the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative; and Eli Schaap, program officer for education and research at the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, which supports the initiative, were in Pittsburgh Tuesday to meet with preschool directors here and present the findings of their survey. JECEI did the survey for the community free of charge.
JECEI considers early childhood education to be a “unique opportunity to engage both young children and their parents in a rich and meaningful Jewish communal life,” and is promoting the concept through its surveys.
The three key findings of the Pittsburgh survey were:
• The schools fall short of reaching Jewish families with young children;
• The schools miss opportunities for engaging Jewish families with young children;
• Excellence matters to parents (but) the teachers lack credentials and training for delivering excellence.
“We’re not saying the Pittsburgh early childhood schools are not good,” Bidol-Padva said, “we’re saying they could do better.”
Eleven early childhood schools or centers in Jewish Pittsburgh were surveyed for the first of two parts of the study, Schaap said. Educators were surveyed for the second.
Among the findings, early childhood schools here have enough capacity for 1,247 children, but only 1,048 were enrolled. Of that number only 55 percent were considered Jewish.
(According to Schaap, the survey didn’t define being Jewish. It simply accepted whatever the directors said about the identity of their pupils.)
Zipora Gur, director of advanced education for the Agency for Jewish Learning, saw the excess capacity in the schools as an opportunity. “The fact that there’s more room in our preschools shows that if we do a better job we can have more Jewish kids because there’s room for them,” she said.
Children ages 2 to 4 had the highest enrollment in the schools; infants had the lowest with only three schools offering infant care (one had a 52-name waiting list).
But enrollment drops to 17 percent for kindergarten — a finding that should concern the community, Gur said.
“After the 4-year-olds, we lose most of the kids,” she said. “This is really the important part because it’s about engaging the kids — and engagement of the families.”
Less than half of the so-called “front line educators in the schools” are Jewish — 53 percent of the teachers and 28 percent of the assistants.
Forty-three percent of the teachers received a Jewish education both as children and adults, 41 percent as children only and 12 percent had no Jewish education at all.
Gur said the 12 percent figure is typical of Jewish day schools everywhere, but she still called it “scary.”
Only 49 percent of the educators engage parents in discussions about Jewish life — a percentage Schaap believes is too low. “We would like that to be 100 percent,” he said.
Further, 65 percent of the educators said they are not talking with parents about Jewish living and learning options beyond early childhood education, and 43 percent said they don’t consider such discussions to be their responsibility.
Though not part of this survey, Schaap used JECEI’s own past research and data from other sources to state that quality of educators is the number one consideration for parents when they choose an early childhood school. Also, he added, if the parents perceive the school they’ve selected to be excellent, they’re more likely to engage in Jewish life.
The survey showed that school directors find it difficult to attract qualified teachers, with 27 percent reporting that high quality teachers are “very difficult” to find; only 18 percent said it was “easy.”
One reason for that difficulty may be compensation. Eighty-seven percent of the educators said their salaries are the main or at least an important source of household income in their families.
Gur said she wasn’t surprised by the findings in the survey.
“It was really black and white,” she said. “It was alarming and serious and it’s time for us to deal with it.”
All the preschool directors responded to an online portion of the survey, while 70 percent of the teachers and assistants, (163 of a possible 234) responded to an in-school portion.
Peter Braasch and Jay Goodman co-chaired the Educational Serrvices Committee of the AJL, which is examining the services provided for early childhood programs in the community. It will also work with the schools on a vision statement, AJL Director Ed Frim said.
That vision statement will be especially important, Schaap said. He noted that preschools must decide which of four basic visions — custodial care, education, education for the whole family or investment in the future — they provide the community.
“Many Jewish institutions in the country do not have a clear vision of what they want to accomplish, which has a good and a bad side,” he said. “The good side is you’ll never fail; the bad side is you’ll never succeed.”
Gur hopes the community makes preschool education a high priority, noting this is the time not only to engage the next generation of Jews, but to retain it as well.
“If we don’t have a strong foundation at the preschool level then we missed the boat,” she said, “because then people don’t send their kids to Jewish day schools.”

(Lee Chottiner can be reached at leec@thejewishchronicle.net.)

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