Raising the Bar At Jewish Preschools

Chabad Early Education Directors Incorporate Emergent Curriculum, Reggio Emilia, Montessori

Raising the Bar At Jewish Preschools

by Sarah Lehat - Basking Ridge, NJ

August 24, 2010

(lubavitch.com) This September the Olam Academy of Basking Ridge, New Jersey will open its doors to welcome 16 students into its inaugural kindergarten and first grade classes. The academy is the brainchild of educational director Malkie Herson, director of the Zimmer Preschool. Sharing Zimmer's two story building, equipped with customized classrooms, indoor sandboxes, a water art room, gym, playground and more, the Olam Academy comes one step closer to achieving founding donor Stuart Zimmer's dream to build a day school.

Herson's decision to expand her school and accommodate children beyond preschool age was motivated in part by a personal dilemma. With her own son Leivik now six years old, Herson wanted him to continue receiving a top-notch education that would build on his experiences at Zimmer.

Zimmer is one of a growing number of Chabad preschools that are members of the CECE (Chabad Early Childhood Education) network, headed by National Coordinator Devorah Krasnianski. The CECE was created to foster an exchange of ideas between faculties at different schools striving to achieve a standard of excellence in Jewish education.

Preschool of the Arts in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, is also a CECE school, and its director, Sorie Rotenstreich shares Herson’s passion for early childhood education. Both Herson and Rotenstreich are strong advocates of "Emergent Curriculum" which encourages curriculum development based on a child's interests, an element of the now highly popular Reggio Emilia educational philosophy frequently partnered with techniques from the slightly older Montessori methodology.

For Herson, emphasizing Jewish values in education is highly important, and she focuses on fostering an atmosphere of "dignity, compassion and respect.”

"It is imperative to impart to children the ability to dialogue between their hearts, their minds, their bodies, their souls, to teach them how to behave holistically, communicating within, between their various impulses, thoughts and experiences,” says Herson. It is imperative that educators teach “children how to reconcile the disparate elements of our personalities into a holistic whole."

Rachel Rosenthal of Basking Ridge , herself a public school teacher, sends her three year old daughter to the Zimmer academy, and admits that "now sending Carly to public School would be like sending her to another planet.” For Rosenthal, the two most important factors that make Zimmer the preschool of choice for her daughter are the fact “that the staff are all playing from the same playbook and teaching from the same philosophy," as well as the faculty’s respect for each “child's intelligence and ability to hear and understand and learn.”

Roberta Schor, a professor of mathematics and education, makes the daily forty-mile roundtrip commute to Zimmer with her grandchildren, because, as she says, the school gives them "a sense of pride and purpose in their uniqueness."

Schor is wary of schools that use the buzzwords of alternative educational philosophies to attract parents. Terms like "differentiated instuction,” "metacognition,” and "emergent curriculum" are true to their purpose as incorporated in Zimmer's curriculum, which is tailored to meet the needs of its students. She praises the implementation of an "’emergent curriculum”’ with a purpose and selectivity in that emergence.”

Although the original Reggio schools were usually parent run, that is not longer the case. But Rotenstreich has pioneered a program to mimic the effects of parent-run schools. Jenny Flax, a parent at Sorie Rotenstreich's Preschool of the Arts and owner of the event planning firm "Piece of Cake,” is president of Parent Link, which arranges meetings and activities between parents and teachers. Parent Link aims to ensure that a common mission informs both the parents' and the staff's interactions with the children. The sense of community that results from Family Shabbat dinners, challah baking sessions and other parent-staff meetings aids both parties in fostering a common language to communicate with the children.

The Zimmer School, Olam Academy, and Preschool of the Arts are trail-blazers empowering children to become confident leaders and the proud bearers of a strong Jewish identity. As Schor says of her grandson, seven-year-old Zimmer graduate Michael, "everything indicates that he has taken ownership of his Judaism. He feels his Judaism is tied to him, to who he is."

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