Kelly Gable-LaBelle stood in the toddler classroom — thumbing through a coffee-table book on marine life.
“People don’t want to give kids coffee-table books,” she said. “I don’t understand why.”
She stopped perusing when her eyes fell upon a glossy photo of a blue whale.
“What an image this is!” she exclaimed, sharing it with a reporter. “It’s so much more interesting than a cartoon book. Children can be so much more if we let them.”
That, you could say, is the whole theme behind the new $2 million Annabelle Rubinstein Early Childhood Development Center at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill, which was formally presented Monday at the JCC’s annual meeting.
The center, which serves children ages 6 weeks to 5 years, replaces a 30-year-old facility in the same building that was in need of renovation.
Following the meeting, Gable-LaBelle, the JCC’s division director of early childhood service, led tours of the spacious facility, which includes 13 classrooms, a studio, offices, a teachers lounge and — perhaps its main feature — a hallway-long, eye-grabbing Jewish calendar wall with shelves to display artifacts, and space for documentation of class projects related to Shabbat and the holidays.
“It is truly a learning tool for everyone in the community,” Gable-LaBelle said.
Eight weeks in construction, the center, which already serves 216 children a day (280 including afternoon enrichment programs), is built to reflect its new learning philosophy, Reggio Emilia, which immerses children in a dynamic learning process, creating their own learning environment.
The Italian-developed learning approach is already on display in the studio where children are exposed to painting, cooking, word work, clay and textiles, not to mention those coffee-table books of great creatures, famous artists and a host of other subjects.
The children gravitate to what interests them, in a sense creating their own curriculum — the goal of Reggio Emilia.
However, the word “curriculum” isn’t used at the center. And lesson plans are not employed.
“It’s a philosophy of education,” Gable-LaBelle said.
In the studio, she propped up a paint-spackled canvas resembling a Jackson Pollock original. That wasn’t by accident. The kids saw a coffee-table book, which happened to include pictures of Pollock paintings, and that piqued their interest.
She then pointed out the miniature loom, on which the kids are already experimenting with weaving.
“We have a group that is creating textiles,” Gable-Labelle said. “That’s just what this group is interested in, and we want to support that.”
In one classroom, Sarah Glascom, project director of the center, showed off her kids’ interest in dinosaurs. Statues of the extinct reptiles decorate the shelves, and the kids may continue to study or try to build their own models.
“It depends on what they want to do,” Glascom said.
It’s all intended to spark a limitless interest in learning.
Ed Frim, executive director of the Agency for Jewish Learning, said his agency touted the Reggio Emilia philosophy to the JCC, which was planning to renovate its early childhood space regardless, and provided expertise helpful in implementing it and training JCC instructors.
“We brought them expert consultants, both in the Reggio area and in the Judaic areas, and we’ve helped to move the way they see their work and actually their world, and that has resulted in the way the program has changed,” Frim said.
Introducing Reggio Emilia not only influenced the way JCC teaches its children, but the way the center was redesigned, Frim added. “The physical space really reflects the educational philosophy, and that wouldn’t have happened in the same way without the work we’ve done.”
AJL, along with the Cyert Center for Early Education at Carnegie Mellon University, has also worked with Temple Ohav Shalom and Congregation Beth Shalom to introduce Reggio Emilia at their schools. The Centennial Fund for a Jewish Future of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has supported these initiatives.
JCC President and CEO Brian Schreiber said the new center shows a commitment to early childhood education few organizations are currently making.
“At a time when very few early childhood education centers are investing in growth and philosophical development, the Jewish Community Center with the lead support of both the Shapira and Chosky Foundations has invested in a Reggio Emilio philosophy and physical environment that will be a model for the region.”
During Monday’s JCC meeting, the guest speaker, Bill Isler, a member of the Pittsburgh Public School board and president of the Fred Rogers Company, praised the JCC staff, volunteers and particularly its outgoing chair, Jeffrey Markel, for moving the project from planning stage to reality.
“I don’t know a lot of programs today that have gone to raise $2 million to renovate a children’s center in an existing building,” Isler said.
He predicted the new facility would pay dividends for years in the form of young people with lifelong interests in learning who become productive members of the community.
“These children will not forget their start here in this center,” Isler said. He added, “I thank you, as a citizen of this city, for what you’re doing for children.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)