Success in San Francisco: The Impact of Resource Specialists in Jewish Early Childhood Education

Denise Moyes-Schnur

Imagine—what would it be like to have a child in a program that provided an educator who was dedicated to helping teachers deepen their reflective practice as well as their Jewish knowledge? And, what if this person worked as a concierge to engage young families in Jewish life in the broader community?

Actually, imagination is not necessary. Six years ago, the Early Childhood and Family Engagement Initiative (ECFE) in San Francisco filled this position for Jewish preschools. With generous funding from the Jim Joseph Foundation and the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund, the San Francisco Early Childhood Initiative began the Jewish Resource Specialist (JRS) program.

The program launched with five pilot sites and quickly became ECFE’s most recognized program. Each of these five sites had a designated classroom teacher who worked ten additional hours at their site with the dual goals of deepening Jewish learning and engaging families in Jewish life. The teachers were given a coach who supported their work and met with them each month. They also attended a retreat, six meetings of a JRS community of practice, and a day of learning at the end of each school year. This professional development helped to strengthen the work of the JRS at their schools, as each JRS brought their learning from these days back to their programs. Additionally, each preschool program also received professional development funding for their teachers to deepen their own Jewish learning programming and funding for Jewish parent and family programs.

What have been the results? Our program impact has been profound. On the leadership level, directors have discovered a partner in their JRS who helps them maintain a high quality of Judaic learning and programming while keeping the education at their school reflective of current practice. The teachers in JRS preschools approach the JRS in their programs with questions for peer-to-peer advice and support—a peer, not a supervisor. On the school level, the JRS program supports work on the school’s vision, each system developing their own goals in the areas of Jewish learning and engaging families in Jewish life. We know that embedded professional development works best, and the JRS system leverages that knowledge to move each school forward.

On the parent level, there are many examples of how these specialists have enabled teachers to articulate the work that they do in the classroom, and to share it with families in their care:

hahnasat orhim (welcoming guests), where four-year-old children invited parents to an evening “restaurant” that the children had created;

• sharing a mishnah, where three-year-olds taught parents about the meaning of the statement: “Do not look at the jug, but rather what is inside it”;

• a “Sh’ma” walk in the Oakland Hills, during which families recited the Sh’ma, talked about its meaning, and walked through the woods with a new understanding of what Sh’ma (listen) implies.

Each of these experiences has actively involved parents in learning with the children.
In addition to engaging with their children in Jewish programming that is meaningful to them, connections with other parents are fostered, building a Jewish community. Switching from a “parent education” model to a “parent engagement” model is a subtle change, but one that moves from a deficit model to one that is strength-based. The JRS actively works with the parents to ask them how and where they like to learn, to engage them in the kinds of activities that they enjoy, and to provide a Jewish lens for the learning at these family engagement times. They work with one or two “JRS parents” who help them create meaningful Jewish programming, again, emphasizing family friendships and connection to the Jewish community.

The ECFE’s second cohort just had their siyyum, their closing celebration. As this current cohort ends, the third cohort of the JRS will begin in the fall of 2017. In the words of a parent, “I just can’t imagine what our school would be like without the JRS program.”

Denise Moyes-Schnur is a Jewish early childhood educator, and has been in the field for over 40 years. She has worked in both local and national Jewish early childhood programs, (including JTS’s own first cohort of JECELI, where she was the mentor coordinator). Denise specializes in creating programming, coaching, and mentoring Jewish early childhood centers. She is the director of the Jewish Resource Specialist program, and in July will become the associate director at the Early Childhood and Family Engagement Initiative at the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation.