Preschool Students Guide Curriculum

Strolling through the classrooms of the Stephen S. Wise Early Education Center is like walking through a museum. Walls are jam-packed with the children’s elaborate educational art projects, photos of them creating these masterpieces, and typed quotations of their thoughts on the topic at hand.

One preschool classroom boasts a replica of the Western Wall made out of painted paper bags. Next to it is a list of the youngsters’ explanations about the famous landmark. "You put notes in the holes and God reads them" is one 3-year-old boy’s comment. "You can wish or tell a story." Nearby is a small clay model of the Wall and photographs and postcards depicting the real monument in Israel.

This ornate aesthetic display is just one element of the Reggio Emilia teaching methodology, which is becoming more popular in Jewish preschools in Los Angeles. The teaching style was developed in a northern Italian town of the same name. After the city of Reggio Emilia was ravaged in World War II, citizens wanted to give hope to the community by creating quality preschools. A young teacher named Loris Malaguzzi developed the "Reggio approach," which maintains that the child is a contributor to his or her education. Other cornerstones of the philosophy include incorporating local culture, encouraging parent involvement and using the classroom as the "third teacher," in that it should contain thought-provoking objects and experiences.

Esther Elfenbaum, the director of Early Childhood Education Services at the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), introduced Reggio Emilia to the community four years ago after she spent time at the original Reggio school in Italy, where educators from all over the world go to learn about the program. Since then, Elfenbaum has trained local preschool teachers both inside and outside the Jewish community to use this approach in their classrooms. This summer, she made another trip to Italy to gather new information on the method.

Elfenbaum teamed up with Dafna Presnell, the director of the Stephen S. Wise Early Education Program, and the two women developed the program for the Los Angeles preschool. Presnell was immediately drawn to the methodology.

"The approach was so inclusive," she says. "They really emphasized relationships and the necessity to include the community. When we were looking at the cultural part, it was so exciting, because I was thinking of our rich and magnificent culture and religion."

"In traditional teaching, the teacher has a plan," says Elfenbaum. "This is different. It’s inspired by the children." To enable the children to guide their learning experience, teachers must be observant facilitators and let the lesson evolve by discovering what the children are interested in. Children then hypothesize about the subjects they are studying and do research to see if their theories are correct. This research might involve discussions, drawing pictures, painting, working with clay, putting on a play and countless other creative processes, which constitute what this method calls the "hundred languages" of children.

In the spring, preschoolers at Stephen S. Wise learned about Passover. This led to a lesson on the desert. When the children expressed their knowledge of Palm Springs and the Negev, the teachers asked questions about what desert life is like, which lead to a monthlong study of the topic. Yom Ha’atzmaut presented the perfect segue into a monthlong study about Israel. The children drew pictures of the Israeli flag and brought in pictures, postcards and other authentic relics belonging to their families. Classes then created "Israel museums" for the other students to visit.

While some preschools, like Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and Adat Ari El in Valley Village, embrace Reggio wholeheartedly, other institutions choose to simply incorporate aspects of the approach. At Temple Israel of Hollywood Nursery School, teachers borrow the aesthetics theory used in Reggio.

"I don’t believe in one program meeting the needs of all children," says Eileen Horowitz, who heads Temple Israel’s school.

Carol Bovill, the director of the Mann Family Early Childhood Center at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, plans to teach her staff about Reggio Emilia this fall. "It will be one part of our program, along with the Montessori and High Scope," Bovill said.

Still, Reggio advocates believe that the method can stand alone, since it represents a belief in a youngster’s potential. "You don’t always know what children will know unless you give them a chance," Elfenbaum emphasizes. "You would be amazed at what kind of information comes out of a child."

Teacher Shortage

There is no summertime lull at schools for Jewish education.

Even as day campers toting towel-stuffed beach bags invade day schools and synagogue religious classrooms, administrators are spending their summer scrambling to fill staff vacancies for September, at a time when qualified Judaic and Hebrew instructors are difficult to find.

The shortage stems from an increasing demand statewide for public school teachers, a shift in Israel’s economy and what some suggest is a failure of planning by Reform and Conservative movements.

In addition, Orange County presents its own set of difficulties for recruiting, given the region’s description by one educator as “Jewishly disadvantaged.”

“People involved in Jewish teaching want an active Jewish community,” says Eve Fein, director of Rancho Santa Margarita’s Morasha Jewish Day School, who recently filled two staff positions by tapping existing residents.

“We have pockets of it here, but to create Jewish life here takes more work,” she said. “You can have a terrific impact, but to take a leap to Orange County is a challenge in itself.”

Fortuitously for administrators, the proliferation of Jewish day schools during the ’70s and ’80s coincided with economic doldrums in Israel. Religious school administrators, too, were happy to staff classrooms with Israeli-born teachers seeking better job opportunities in the U.S.

Not so the last decade.

“During the high-tech boom, we hardly saw an Israeli teacher at all,” says Yonaton Shultz, personnel services director for the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education. Today, he says, the initial waves of Israeli immigrants are nearing retirement, and recent Jewish education graduates prefer jobs as administrators, for which benefits are better than in teaching. “Where is the next batch?” he asks.

Unlike secular recruiters, who resort to signing bonuses and housing subsidies to lure candidates, such enticements are rarely offered for Jewish jobs.

Even so, religious school directors are devising clever inducements for teachers, who typically work part-time. These include reduced religious school tuition for their children and free temple membership.

Some solve their recruiting difficulties under their own roof. “You have to keep your antenna up,” says Joanne Mercer, religious education director at Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm, which this fall will hold 10 sessions each of Hebrew and Judaic study for 350 students. Mercer is a former public school teacher and long-time Sunday school teacher, who was named acting director to fill a vacancy and assumed the post in 1991.

Transforming congregants who hunger for personal Jewish growth into qualified teachers is a pet recruitment project of Joan S. Kaye, director of the Orange County Bureau of Jewish Education. In 1994, she received a five-year, $200,000 grant to devise a program to train and mentor congregants on teaching in a Jewish school.

This summer, Kaye herself is seeking an assistant director to succeed Jay Lewis, who after seven years in the county was named Hillel executive director at the University of Kansas. Kaye has posted a job description at, a Web site started last October.

Passion alone, though, is no substitute for the perquisites accorded professionals. “Being a Jewish educator wasn’t viewed as a real job,” says Shultz, who reports that 50 percent of day school teachers lacked benefits in 1987.

No longer is that the case as competitive pressure forced day schools to shift hiring to full-time staff, instead of part-timers, he says. To stay competitive, some day schools are offering pension benefits. “That’s going to make it a long-term field,” he predicts.

This month, a new effort to fill the day school administrative pipeline starts by subsidizing 10 graduate students enrolled in a leadership training program at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and at the Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Eight other campuses, which have yet to be identified, are also expected to offer the program, says Paul Flexner, human resources vice president for the Jewish Education Service of North America, the Jewish Federation’s educational arm. Students will receive a $25,000 stipend, health insurance and 12 graduate credits, about a third necessary to complete a master’s degree.

“Come Sept. 3, almost every classroom will have a teacher,” Flexner says. In a cautionary note to parents, though, he adds, “That doesn’t mean they have any training or experience.”