An Opportunity Not to Be Missed: Marketing Jewish Early Childhood Education to Parents

Lisa Farber Miller

Parents who welcome a newborn into their family feel excitement, hope, fear—and, of course, love. During this special life moment, parents often look for support and guidance as they begin to make decisions about their child’s care, including the stressful task of determining the first place the child will spend time outside of the home. A variety of options are available, and we need to make Jewish early childhood education a more visible and desirable choice than it is today. That’s why we created BUILDing Jewish ECE, the first-of-its-kind national marketing and family engagement initiative for synagogues and Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) with early childhood centers.

For children, preschool years are a critical time in the development of cognition, personality, and identity—including religious identity. If we wait to engage the youngest members of our community, we lose out on being an integral part of their development. In addition, when children enjoy Jewish learning and rituals at school, we win: they bring them home and often introduce them to the entire family.

Therefore engaging families when children are between the ages of zero and five is critical. We can introduce families to Jewish life through Jewish early childhood education (ECE) centers that are welcoming, accessible, offer high-quality education for infants to five-year-olds, and present opportunities for parents to form meaningful friendships with each other. These ECE centers, often found at synagogues and JCCs, can be the first place where a family’s Jewish journey together begins.

Jewish early childhood programs benefit children and their parents. We know that parents also choose Jewish preschools to meet other Jewish parents and to create their own community. Parents who have Jewish peer groups through their child’s ECE center are more likely to be actively engaged in Jewish life in the future. If they perceive an ECE program to be of high quality, they are more likely to listen and absorb when an educator engages them in Jewish activities and teaching.

As a result, it is critical that we market this sacred work effectively. Producing high-quality marketing materials and strategies must be a priority. Our families will then receive the message and respond—ideally by becoming part of an ECE center and its umbrella synagogue or JCC.

Successful Jewish ECE centers filled with families mean a brighter financial picture for the synagogues and JCCs that house them. Each new family enters the pipeline for new members and supporters. For example, in 2012, the Denver/Boulder Jewish communities commissioned the consulting firm EKS&H to conduct an economic study that revealed that the power of connecting early with families was not being realized because synagogues and JCCs did not have a proactive, systematic approach to marketing to families. The study, titled Economic Study of Jewish Early Childhood Education Centers in the Denver/Boulder Areas, found that when Jewish ECE centers in the area operated at best practice marketing standards, their congregations and JCCs’ aggregate revenues could increase $720,000 annually, an average of 11 percent. Most of the eight JCCs and congregations involved in the study were not cross-marketing the value of the synagogue and JCC and how together they met the needs of young families in addition to the benefits of their ECE center.

Shortly after that study, recognizing ECE nationally was still under-resourced and lacking a rich base of best marketing practices, the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation brought together the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), JCC Association (JCCA) and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ) to launch BUILDing Jewish ECE, a two-year process that provided coaching and tools to effectively market for and respond to inquiries, increase enrollment, and enhance family engagement at nine Denver/Boulder ECE centers.

For the last three years, the participating ECE centers in Denver/Boulder have served as learning labs for the Jewish world, teaching the field how to build and maintain institutions that emphasize the highest quality of relationships with prospective and current families and, relatedly, have the highest-caliber customer retention systems.

By working closely with expert ECE and marketing coaches, ECE centers:
• completely changed how they conduct parent visits and how they track and follow up with potential parent customers to maximize enrollment conversion;
• developed their brands and created taglines to promote their educational philosophy and Jewish values;
• began using sophisticated lead-to-registration CRM software to enhance communication with parents and manage the inquiry process;
• learned from mystery shoppers about how to improve parent visits; and
• adopted “parent ambassador” programs to help with peer recruitment.

The ECE centers now understand their enrollment success is premised on strong relationships between families and centers, which begin at the first phone inquiry or meeting. The most effective centers learned that the parents’ first pre-enrollment school visit provides a critical opportunity to gain understanding of a family’s needs. That visit is the time for ECE centers to determine if the center is a good fit for the family—as opposed to trying to “sell” the center. Simultaneously, the director and staff must be able to demonstratehow the center provides high-quality Jewish early learning and discuss their basic competitive advantages—what makes them unique and special—in a crowded marketplace.

Additionally, the centers in BUILDing Jewish ECE broke down silos that existed previously between the ECE center and the synagogue or JCC. The ECE directors changed how they work with their executive directors, as both parties saw the opportunity and benefit of introducing ECE families to all that the community offers. Synagogue and JCC administrators were able to see the ECE centers nested within the larger organizations—often for the first time—because BUILDing Jewish ECE “spoke their language” of recruitment and marketing. This deepens the connection between ECE centers and the larger organization, ultimately making it more likely that ECE families will be engaged for the long term. One synagogue leader explained:

BUILDing Jewish ECE created a regular space for our new director to think through the big picture goals. It helped by requiring the team to include a member of the clergy, the president, and executive director—constituencies who, by default, think larger than the ECE center. We thought about our parent population in a new way. Consider that a family may have one child in the ECE center, one learning in the Hebrew school, and another in the bat mitzvah program. We now have an integrated approach, which provides a more cohesive engagement experience for all the families.

All of the participating ECE directors said the initiative increased their knowledge and skills in marketing, enrollment conversion, and family engagement. They also said that after implementing specific strategies they learned as part of the initiative, they saw positive changes in their ECE centers. Capacity utilization and enrollment increased.

Now, as this initiative concludes and we can document marked improvements in the participating ECE centers, Jewish ECE is poised to take another important step forward with the recent release by Rose Community Foundation of the Standards of Excellence for Jewish Community Centers and Synagogues with Early Childhood Education Centers: Guidelines for Exemplary Educational Practice and for Exemplary Marketing, Enrollment Conversion, Family Satisfaction and Retention, Integration of Center Families into JCCS and Synagogues (SOE).

After ten years of work and millions of dollars invested, the SOE is a compilation, a refinement, and a streamlined publication of ECE standards developed over multiple initiatives by expert evaluators and consultants who worked directly with ECE centers.

The SOE are presented as a workbook with clear guidelines to help Jewish ECE centers understand and document their accomplishments in both educational and marketing strategies, and to develop action plans for change. These centers need the best marketing and recruiting strategies and tools to reach all kinds of families, to respond effectively to inquiries, and to help those who inquire make the decision to enroll their child.

By offering the field a common language, as the SOE does, practitioners, consultants, and evaluators can more easily and consistently share best practices and discuss challenges. As a result, Jewish ECE centers will achieve even greater outcomes, and the entire Jewish community will benefit.

Lisa Farber Miller is senior program officer at Rose Community Foundation, which supported both BUILDing Jewish ECE and the Standards of Excellence. The SOE was developed as part of the Denver/Boulder ECE strategic plan, a partnership of JEWISHcolorado (formerly the Allied Jewish Federation of Colorado), Colorado Agency for Jewish Education, Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation of Colorado, Rose Community Foundation, and other anonymous donors, designed to help the Denver and Boulder Jewish ECE centers.