by Dawne Bear Novicoff and Seth Linden

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.

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. All of these advancements in the field reflect an increased understanding of the incredible opportunity Jewish ECE presents to engage families in Jewish life and for young learners to begin their Jewish learning experiences.

As the Jim Joseph Foundation continues to think about best practices in philanthropy and how to make the greatest impact in Jewish education, we increasingly focus on models of dissemination and adaptation. We believe these two ideas are inter-related, in 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.

At the same time, we are thinking deeply about how to support and promote the most impactful inflection points along one’s Jewish journey. It is clear that raising young children is one of these such points in life. The numerous Letters of Interest (LOIs) focused on Jewish ECE that we received through last year’s open Request for Proposals (RFP) are indicative of rising interest and increasing demand for early childhood programming and funding both locally and nationally. Along with funder colleagues in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, New York, Washington D.C. and elsewhere, we meet regularly to share learnings from each of our local investments. Simply, there is much to do in this area and many good interventions and pilots bubbling to the surface. 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.

With that in mind, and with an updated model documentation of the JRS Initiative from Informing Change (click for executive summary and for the full report) – 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 to 21 the total number of Jewish ECE schools in the JRS Initiative. 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:

  • Jewish content integrated into typically secular family programs;
  • High parent satisfaction with opportunities to explore Jewish life;
  • Teachers’ increased confidence in bringing Jewish content into the classroom; and
  • Families participating in additional Jewish events around their community.

Change that Lasts

While we are of course pleased to see these positive outcomes, we want to focus here 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. The JRS model is proving to do just that. We believe this is a compelling case for potential funders and ECE programs that are considering a similar type of investment in other communities.

Continued InvestmentContinued Impact

The ECE programs in the JRS Initiative say they 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. And new teachers still engage new families and continue classroom programs using resources and structures put into place by the JRS educator.

An especially 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 and working with classroom teachers to deliver Jewish content, just as the JRS did. This position is usually held by a classroom teacher who is allocated six to ten hours a week to dedicate to this, but there are other variations, including sharing the work across two teachers and dividing the responsibilities between the school director and a teacher.

A Lasting Cultural Shift in ECE Programs

“Through JRS we established some parent programs that are now integral to who this school is.”
– School Director

Beyond these positive ongoing activities are even deeper cultural changes in ECE programs that were a part of the Initiative. School directors and JRS educators from past cohorts say that the Initiative helped to increase expectations regarding the quality of Jewish education in the classroom. These higher expectations remain – and continue to be met because systems and educational resources are in place. JRS educators developed new curricula, workshops, activities, and procedures to match their schools’ needs, which still support teachers and staff to offer Jewish learning regularly. And, 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.” Critically, school leaders also say that Jewish values are visible not just during specific program activities, but also as part of overall classroom management. In other words, Jewish learning and experiences can happen at any time of day.

Individual teachers also are benefitting from the JRS Initiative because of lasting cultural changes. As a result of their JRS educator’s efforts, 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.”

Continued Impact of Professional Development

Professional development (PD), including in-person seminars, individual coaching, and relevant site visits, was – and for some still is – an integral part of the Initiative. Since these PD opportunities are designed with the broader school in mind, not just the ECE program, they have resulted in some innovative school-wide changes still seen today. 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 Jewish content. 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 transformed and still impacts 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 naturebased. It has changed the school.”

Finally, when a JRS educator moved from her community the JRS educator took her learning and enthusiasm to an ECE program in her new community and, according to her former school director, the JRS approach “completely transformed” the Jewish content in that schooltoo.

Final Thoughts

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 Jewish resource specialists learning, support, and other PD 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 elevate the place of ECE in Jewish life. For more information about the JRS Initiative, please contact Denise Moyes-Schnur at the Federation (

Cross-posted from the Jim Joseph Foundation Blog