By Rachel Wizenfeld
Enter any classroom in the Kehillat Mogen David Early Childhood Center (KMDECC) and you’re instantly calmed with familiar scenes and inviting touches. This is not a preschool of bright and shining plastic Playmobil. Instead, a small table is set with candlesticks and a menorah while a book of Chagall’s paintings beckons on the shelf. Wooden tables are filled with sensory objects like bubble wrap and bright cloths for two-year-olds to engage their senses, while a playroom houses a light table, and pipes and discarded guttering to build tunnels and tracks for cars. Outside, students harvest strawberries and plant a “bracha” garden in a space enveloped by a mural of woods, streams and mountains, as if they’re playing in their own private forest
It’s all part of the Reggio Emillia philosophy, which promotes curiosity in nature, respect for a child’s natural environment, cooperation, community and aesthetics. Here, through exposure to different themes, students are encouraged to explore different textures, materials, concepts and ideas and follow their curiosity. Teachers weave English and Judaic study together, so that an art project on the six days of creation may lead into studying the solar system; or an architecture project, in which four and five-year-olds measured and glued cardboard planks and walls, turned into building the city of Shushan in time for Purim.
“It’s so rich,” says Cecelie Wizenfeld, principal of KMDECC which currently enrolls kids through age five, but is opening a first grade next year. “It gives the child so much more awareness of their surroundings, it lets them use their brains to expand, to think, to discuss, to talk…they’re able to create and become creative, and it’s a child’s world – it’s not the adults telling them what to do.”
Ms. Wizenfeld became inspired to create a Reggio environment while working at Shalhevet as the Early Education principal (previously she was the director of early childhood at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy for 13 years) until the Shalhevet elementary school shut down. When she was approached by Rabbi Gabriel Elias, senior rabbi at Congregation Mogen David, to start a preschool there four years ago, she brought much of that philosophy with her, and has continued to evolve the unique curricula and programming since.
Reggio Emillia has its roots in war-torn Europe, when a group of townspeople banded together to build a school for their children. Local artisans and professionals taught students about their trades and livelihoods, light and natural aesthetics were valued in play and learning, and observing and documenting students was a critical part of developing the curriculum.
These themes are expressed at KMDECC by incorporating programs like Anamaly, which brings in different animals like tarantulas or bunnies each week to learn about animal life; photographing and displaying children at work; and playing music like big band or jazz to give children exposure to different rhythms. At snack, students wait to select their own bowl, then sit while snack is served family style, each kid waiting to choose three crackers, or apple pieces.
“They’re learning cooperation, patience and math skills, all in one snack,” says Ms. Wizenfeld.
Rabbi Elias chose to start the preschool because he saw a need in the area. While many of the major day schools have their own preschool programs and are doing quite well, he found that many kids were being sent to public school or weren’t finding the right place for them.
“We took a gamble – neither Cecilie nor I were sure that we would succeed,” he says.
Since operating for four years and adding a class level each year, the administrators now feel ready to launch their elementary school, starting with a first grade and hopefully finishing with a fifth grade, according to Rabbi Elias, who also serves as the head of school.
They hope to launch 1st grade with 15 students, and incorporate Ivrit b’Ivrit (Hebrew immersion) learning along with the Reggio Emillia philosophy.
While Rabbi Elias can’t say what tuition will be yet for 1st grade, he’s hoping to keep it to $10-11,000, significantly less than other schools in the area. He’s able to cut costs due to low overhead – currently all the classes fit in the synagogue facility, and administrative costs are still low, which might change as the school grows.
KMDECC has a loyal following, having basically grown through word of mouth since inception. The majority of families come from Modern Orthodox synagogues in the area, while many families have joined Mogen David itself and helped revitalize the synagogue.
Farnaz Barkhordar is one mom who joined the school right when it started, and has become an involved member of Mogen David since.
“I felt like it was homey and loving and that was what my daughter needed,” she says. “I see my daughter is ahead of her learning compared to other friends from other schools. She knows her letters, she knows how to write…they really are creative there, the teachers are extremely good.”Barkhordar speaks for many of the parents, says Ms. Wizenfeld. “Parents know this is a warm, nurturing environment where kids are going to have a lot of different experiences and exposures – not the typical stuff.”