Startup Pre-K at Boston’s Solomon Schechter
In February of 2010, the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston (SSDSGB) had an opportunity. A Jewish early childhood education program which was located on the school’s property abruptly decided to close. Although unaffiliated with SSDSGB, this program had been a wonderful partner in Jewish education and was a significant feeder to the school’s Kindergarten. Faced with a decision about what to do with this suddenly vacant rental space, some members of the SSDSGB board and Hanhallah (senior staff) had an ambitious dream to use the space that was already designed to serve young children and build their own program. In an effort to design a program that would best serve the Boston Jewish community, the school engaged in a market research study which identified that there was a need in the Boston area for a full-time, full-year Jewish early childhood education program that started at a young age. Despite the recession, the board felt there was a compelling case that that such a program should be part of the school’s future; starting to educate Jewish children beginning at 18 months would not only extend the mission of the school to a population that was a natural extension, but also provide a consistent feeder to the Schechter’s kindergarten.
“Providing outstanding education to Jewish families and partnering with them in that way is a beautiful extension of our work,” said Arnold Zar-Kessler, Head of School.
In November 2010 SSDSGB hired Ellen Agulnick as the early childhood program director based on her extensive track record of starting preschools and prior successes in building community. At that time, it was too late for the program to open in September 2010 so Ellen was hired for one year, taking the risk that in that time she could effectively market, enroll, and build the school to open in September 2011. If there weren’t at least 24 children enrolled by mid-February, the school would not go forward.
In February of 2011, 55 of 56 spots were filled. “There was a period of time where it really took off and it was quite exciting and remarkable,” said Amy Kruglak, a school board member. Especially remarkable was the fact that the classes were filled with not one teacher hired or one classroom set up. By the time the school did open in 2011, the classes were filled, some with waiting lists.
The early childhood program’s accomplishments have been quite impressive and registration for fall 2012 is full with waiting lists in each classroom. Of 17 children in the oldest classroom, 14 have applied to the Schechter pre-school. Kruglak attributes the success to several factors:
- The school administration and volunteer leadership has worked very intentionally throughout the year to create linkages between the early childhood program and the K through 8 program.
- Efforts to help parents feel part of a community. “If someone dies or a baby is born, the Schechter chessed community reached out,” she explained.
- When a child’s friends were all going to kindergarten at Schechter, it created a group dynamic which encouraged others to make the decision as well. “If you intentionally build the preschool as part of the school, it will bring in families who haven’t previously considered it as an option,” said Kruglak.
- The difference between the cost of full-time day care and Jewish day school is not that great, creating a more natural financial transition.
Here are some lessons learned from this school’s experience:
- Professional leadership: Things fall into place much better with an outstanding leader to take on the responsibilities, in this case Ellen.
- Lay leadership: The championing of the cause by a volunteer trustee –Amy Kruglak – had a critical impact on the preschool’s success.
- Institutions have to be prepared to see themselves in an entrepreneurial role. “Independent schools have to recognize that in order to remain active players they have to think in an entrepreneurial sense and take risks… In your own business, you’d be able to take calculated risks, so why not in our institutions?” said Zar-Kessler.
- Gauge the readiness of your community. Kruglak and Zar-Kessler feel that it cannot be a one-size-fits-all model – schools need to research other options that exist and how they can best service their communities.
These lessons – highlighting the role of entrepreneurship, leadership, and community-based work which SSDSGB’s early childhood program embody – may well be meaningful for others to consider in efforts to further enrollment and engagement in Jewish day school education.