Jewish preschool ‘deserts,’ high tuition costs, staff retention are key issues, Bay Area study finds

February 28, 2024 | News

By Esther D. Kustanowitz

Survey was conducted by the Koret Foundation and EarlyJ as part of major push to overhaul Jewish early childhood education in San Francisco region

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Jewish preschool education can be critically understaffed, hard to find, difficult to get to and challenging for parents to afford. These are among the findings of a new research study, “Exploring the Jewish [Early Childhood Education] Ecosystem,” shared with more than 180 participants who gathered across three locations last month.

The survey, which was conducted by Rosov Consulting, is a joint research initiative funded by the Koret Foundation and EarlyJ, a collaboration between the Rodan Family Foundation and the Koum Family Foundation that launched in April 2023.

“There hadn’t been this level of research done in our community,” said Danielle Foreman, chief program officer of the Koret Foundation. “From our standpoint, this is a community resource that we wanted to have out there…our hope is that we will inspire others through the research to be able to find something out of this to fund in collaboration with EarlyJ.”

She added: “Our hope is that this research can be used for practitioners and funders alike and can jump start a conversation about the kind of ECE ecosystem we want to have in the Bay Area.”

Foreman told eJewishPhilanthropy that Koret initiated the research, bringing in Rosov Consulting to conduct it, and then EarlyJ got on board. “It was an amazing moment where Rodan and Koum and several others were funding this through EarlyJ, and we could provide this amazing set of data and information for them to have as a backbone for their for their work,” Foreman said, calling EarlyJ “the local funding arm for Jewish ECE,” along with the Bay Area federation, a longtime funder of scholarships for Jewish families.

The research, which was conducted in March of 2023, had three learning goals: mapping the geography of Jewish ECE programs and identifying where Jewish families were living; surveying these programs in terms of operations, finances, demographics and other vectors; and identifying pathways and barriers to enrollment.

The report included recommendations for how to address the challenges facing the field. For example, tackling staffing challenges by identifying the barriers to hiring; supporting programs for Jewish ECE educator retention; and providing grants to preschools to facilitate expansion. Additionally, funding professional development opportunities, conferences and master’s degree programs can increase educator salaries, thereby encouraging teacher retention.

The study found that 38% of Jewish ECE programs reported being understaffed, and that a sizeable majority — between two-thirds and three-quarters — have fewer students than they are capable of.

The study found that a year of preschool tuition — 46 weeks of care per year on average — ranges from $9,900 to $35,400, with a median of $19,300 per year. In 2021-2022, one out of every five of all families applied for tuition assistance; of the families that applied for it, 93% received tuition assistance, according to the survey. And yet, perhaps counterintuitively, the study found that schools with higher tuition costs had more students.

A geography section of the report presented maps of the region identifying preschool “deserts,” areas where Jewish educational options are sparse or not available, and where support and innovation is needed. The maps also mark local non-Jewish ECE programs, showing the competition that Jewish ECE programs face in attracting students. The sustainability of the Jewish community, long-term, requires increased investing in young families, the research concluded, by supporting programs that serve as portals for broader family Jewish engagement, such as the PJ Library Connector Program.

In addition to the quantitative survey, the study includes 25 interviews with parents, in which they discuss their considerations when choosing a preschool, from looking to instill a sense of Jewish pride to lamenting the lack of diversity at some Jewish institutions, from expense to location.

“In general, the decision for me is, I want to have my kids exposed to what being Jewish means, to the Jewish holidays, and want them to be proud of who they are and what they are and where we come from in our roots,” said one parent, whose child recently graduated from Jewish ECE program. “And so a Jewish school was really a no-brainer for me.”

Another parent, who considered but ultimately did not enroll their child in a Jewish ECE program, said the lack of diversity in Jewish preschools was the main reason. “If we’re going to be a family that decides to live and raise our kids in San Francisco, we want to embrace those aspects of urban life,” they said.

Among the attendees at the study release event last month were foundations from the Bay Area and across the U.S., early childhood education directors and teachers, preschool CEOs and board members, funders and representatives of different organizations and initiatives who collaborated with the study.

“Everything starts with early childhood education. That’s where you create your friendships, that’s where you really have community,” said Sharona Israeli-Roth, founding president and executive director of EarlyJ. The Rodan and Koum family foundations provided a combined $12 million over five years to fund EarlyJ, with an additional $2 million for East Bay pilot projects.

The research study, Israeli-Roth added, identifies “what we have currently, what is needed, what we can do and what the world of philanthropy can do, and how to help move the needle in early childhood education.”

Leveraging the insights from the research toward collaborative partnerships, Israeli-Roth said, “the community is poised to usher in a new era of growth and vitality in Jewish early childhood education,” adding that, with the rise of antisemitism after Oct. 7, the focus on Jewish ECE could plant the seeds for the Jewish future. “People are trying to seek out what they can do to really create a strong Jewish education and Jewish community,” she said.

Israeli-Roth said that EarlyJ would continue toward launching a fully subsidized ECE Israel Seminar for leading educators in June 2024, curated in collaboration with Oranim College in Israel, toward enhancing teachers’ Jewish education skills and building partnerships across schools. After completing the seminar, educators will earn five academic credits from Oranim and receive the title of Early Childhood Jewish and Israel cultural ambassador and a onetime bonus of $5,000.

While Koret is not a direct funder of EarlyJ, the presentations were an opportunity to work with EarlyJ to benefit the community, Foreman added. “For those who work in an ECE program (director or educator) they felt ‘seen’ by the research, especially as it relates to the challenges of staffing, low teacher salaries, and high tuition for families. The other community stakeholders were excited to see all this information in one place and recognized that this is a multifaceted area,” she said.

The collaboration also forged connections and generated interest in EarlyJ’s RFP, which grants $10,000 to $100,000 over a period of up to three years. Since its funding a year ago, the RFP has made 18 awards, amounting to over $1 million distributed so far. This year’s RFP is open to existing and new Jewish preschools in the Bay Area that are interested in increasing enrollment capacity or enhancing the overall quality of the educational experience. For instance, recognizing the need for infant/toddler care expressed by local parents, EarlyJ allocated a few previous grants to open ECE programs and expects more requests through the current RFP.

“Our approach is multidimensional,” Israeli-Roth said. “We’re not investing in one thing. We’re investing in capacity. We’re investing in educators, we’re investing in family engagement and we are trying to figure out the affordability of Jewish ECE. All those things come together to create a stronger community at the end of the day. So when you’re looking to invest, as in the world of philanthropy, you’re really trying to think how to take the different needs of that institution or organization and try to help in all the different levels — not just to work on its capacity, but [also] on its ability to bring the community together and strength.”

As EarlyJ draws interest from organizations outside the Bay Area, Roth-Israeli added, the organization is happy to share what they’ve learned.

“We created [the research], it’s there for the community,” she said. “Because this is our power, to empower others.”

originally posted in eJewish Philanthropy (Photo: Courtesy: The Idea School)