May 26, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Pre-School Explosion in Bergen County

Today mothers have to go to work. Children are often shunted off to day care, pre-school and nurseries while still infants. There is tremendous pressure to have children reading in kindergarten. Playgroups have given way to a plethora of schools offering a wide range of activities. It is a reality, but a sad one. Little children are often dropped off early in the morning and not picked up until dinner time.

There are a number of competing interests at work here. Parents need a safe place to leave their children while/because they work. Schools want to provide a needed service and earn a profit. Synagogues and day schools offer these programs as a feeder to their regular programs. Synagogues, the Y and JCC hope to entice parents to join. Although there may be fluctuations in this age group and schools go through cycles of population expansion and contraction, business is good.

There are 44 Jewishly identified pre-schools/day care centers/nurseries in Bergen County. Twelve are privately owned and operated, seven are part of a day school, 19 are part of a synagogue, and six different programs are run by the Y and the JCC. According to the latest census, there are approximately 51,000 children under 5 in Bergen County. If Jews make up 10% of the population in Bergen County and we factor in that some are not interested in a Jewish school, there are still several thousand Jewish children to populate these schools.

There are programs for newborns, infants, toddlers, tots, and children up to 5 years old. Schools promise a warm, nurturing and safe environment, child-centered developmentally appropriate activities, sensory experiences, songs, stories, fun filled activities, an interactive circle time, arts and crafts, loving atmosphere, personal attention, thought provoking atmosphere encouraging socialization, risk taking, independence, creativity and learning, Jewish environment, a happy, creative, intellectually stimulating, socially encouraging program, filled with messy, explorative play, programs designed to promote each child’s intellectual, social, physical, and emotional growth, a curriculum that embraces the whole child: physically, intellectually, socially, emotionally, creatively, and spiritually, readiness skills are developed in reading, writing, math, science and handwriting, while children express themselves creatively through art, music, movement and language.

Many schools offer extended hours as well as summer programs. Children at the Y and JCC programs have use of their pool and other facilities. A number of schools offer a more intensive Torah curriculum and all schools do Shabbat and holiday programming. Some schools offer programs involving parents and grandparents while some are run by and for Israelis in Hebrew. Some innovative programs include yoga, bubble time, swimming, music, art, and cooking. One school has a full time nurse, a few others have teachers trained in CPR and first aid.

There are so many options and variables to take into consideration. Some parents want longer hours, some want Hebrew immersion, some just want a leg up on admission to that day school, some are interested in geographic proximity, some want a bargain, and others decide based on where their friends send their children. There are, however, some basic questions that every parent needs to ask when visiting their child’s potential pre-school. Is the school overly academic for the age of the child? Is there adequate free play? Is there an outdoor playground? Does the staff as well as the school reflect the same Jewish values as the home? What is the student to teacher ratio? Is the school fully insured? Is the school licensed by the State of New Jersey? Currently only 24 of the 44 schools are licensed.

Jewish education is big business and so is the pre-school phenomenon. We want our children to excel academically. The pace of accelerating this process starts at a very early age. I am not sure if we do more harm than good by programming tykes before they are ready. When the first thick rubber pencil grips came out so that little children who could not yet hold a pencil would be able to write, that was the end of innocence for childhood. When there developed an expectation that children would be reading in kindergarten, that too was the termination of what used to be a carefree, non-pressurized childhood. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator. He was a college professor, day school principal and director of two central agencies for Jewish education, including our own community’s Jewish Educational Services for over a decade. He is the founder of the Sinai School, and has received many prestigious awards. He is currently a consultant to schools, and non-profit organizations, and serves as Executive Secretary of The Alisa Flatow Memorial Scholarship Fund. He can be reached at [email protected].

By Wallace Greene

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