New ‘Gateways’ For Family Engagement
Tue, 01/11/2011
Associate Editor
Students work on an art project at Temple Kol Ami’s nursery school.
Students work on an art project at Temple Kol Ami’s nursery school.

Lisa Bernstein is in the Temple Kol Ami nursery school frequently, while she is dropping off and picking up her two sons. But amid the chaos of getting a 3-year-old and a 4-year-old bundled up, while also managing an infant daughter, it is often too hectic for Bernstein to check in with the teachers or give more than a cursory glance at the student artwork on the classroom walls.

For that, she can use her home computer or smart phone. That’s because the White Plains nursery school this year unveiled a password-protected website, where parents can, among other things, learn about (and see pictures of) classroom projects and upcoming Jewish holidays, check whose turn it is to bring snack and communicate with teachers as well as other parents.

“The teachers are really on top of taking pictures, and there’s a lot less wasted paper,” Bernstein said. “It’s a great tool.”

The Reform synagogue’s early childhood center is one of several local Jewish nursery schools that, with the encouragement and support of the Jewish Education Project (formerly BJENY-SAJES), are beginning to use MicroSteps, an Israeli-designed web platform.

Technology is one of several strategies the Jewish Education Project is promoting in a push to help early childhood programs provide richer “developmentally appropriate” Jewish experiences for their young charges but also to inspire the whole family to become more actively involved in Jewish life.

Parents of small children are “at a life stage where they are looking for new rituals and starting to establish rituals that will become part of the family’s life,” said Shellie Dickstein, the JEP’s director of early childhood education and family engagement. “If a really rich Jewish experience is going on in the classroom and the educators can learn how to communicate that, then the parents can be drawn into the Jewish conversation.”

This fall, the JEP launched Gateways To Engagement (G2E), an intensive two-year program for 11 synagogue- and Jewish community center-based nursery schools in Manhattan, Queens, Westchester and Long Island. Through G2E, institutions bring together teachers, clergy, lay leaders, parents and other stakeholders for intensive planning discussions and to develop specific projects.

At the same time, the JEP is working, albeit less intensively, with the almost 250 New York-area Jewish early childhood programs, such as Kol Ami’s, that are not in G2E: the agency is encouraging all nursery schools to focus on family engagement and change the way they view their teachers and staff — seeing them not just as educators but as Jewish communal ambassadors and guides.

While the agency’s professional development conferences for early childhood educators used to have eclectic offerings, this year the JEP asked each institution to have its staff pick one focal point for the year in order “to make some headway in a deeper way,” Dickstein said.

[Disclosure: This writer was a paid speaker at two JEP conferences for early childhood educators in October.]

The JEP is hoping to get more schools using MicroSteps, which is available free of charge, and is also in discussions with the company about expanding the platform’s offerings to include videos, more kinds of discussions and customized Jewish content.

The agency is also working with synagogues and early childhood programs to use the PJ Library — a national program that sends a free Jewish book each month to families with young children — as an educational resource. Currently, 16 New York institutions are PJ partners, and 18 more are in the process of becoming partners; 3,200 local families have free subscriptions.

The agency is hoping that the 11 G2E participants, which include Park Avenue Synagogue on the Upper East Side, the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens and the Rosenthal JCC of Northern Westchester, will form a “vanguard group” that will “help spread innovation” to the entire community, Dickstein said.

Through G2E, institutions meet frequently, focusing on governance structure and improved communications. Teachers in the participating institutions have monthly Jewish learning sessions, run by innovative Jewish education providers like Hazon, Storahtelling, Teva Nature Center and Explora-Torah. Each G2E site selects one of four “family-engagement models” on which to create a specific project, said Marni Thompson-Tilove, the G2E project manager.

The four models are “home-school connectors,” in which families are assigned activities related to classroom topics to do at home, and then asked to share photographs and other “documentation” with the entire class; a “family space” is designated in the institution, where parents can gather and get to know each other; “social connectors” that recruit parents to focus on outreach and host Jewish events in their homes are instituted; and a “Jewish parenting education” model is presented.

Cheryl Karp, director of early childhood education at Hewlett-East Rockaway Jewish Center on Long Island, said her congregation joined the G2E program because, while the school is popular, “engaging the parents in our synagogue and in our Jewish programming is very difficult” and “we wanted to find out what it is we need to do.”

Bringing together the stakeholders for discussions and better communication with other congregations, is already inspiring some new strategies, she said, such as having the rabbi be more involved in the school and developing off-site events for families that are shy about walking into a synagogue.

One thing that quickly became clear from G2E discussions, Karp said, is that “part of the problem is not asking the parents what they want. We think we know what they want, but we don’t always think to ask them.”

Geula Zamist, the early childhood director at Westchester Jewish Center, said that participating in the G2E program has led her congregation to re-examine its printed materials and other communications to make sure they are “welcoming enough.” The congregation is also trying to be more proactive about making sure nursery school parents understand that “they’re members of the WJC family” and that “you don’t have to be a dues-paying member to come to services on Friday night or Torah for Tots on Shabbat morning.”

Westchester Jewish Center is also “taking that idea seriously of teachers being ambassadors, being part of the process of encouraging families to go deeper and explore their Judaism,” she said.