By Jessica Hanewinckel
In its more than 30 years in San Diego, the San Diego Jewish Academy has graduated thousands of Maimonides Upper School students, introduced just as many Golda Meir Lower School students to the thrill of learning, and cared for multitudes of babies and toddlers in its Beit Yeladim infant care center. But in all those years, it had never been home to a preschool for kids between the Beit Yeladim stage and kindergarten.
“It has been something that has come up for years and years and has always been postponed,” says Larry Acheatel, SDJA’s executive director. “There were, I think, concerns about would it be successful, is this something we should do, just [the process of] starting a new program.”
With new board members eager to make the leap, SDJA’s new preschool is set to open this fall.
“We looked into it from many different angles,” Acheatel says. “Educationally, from a budget point of view, from a finance point of view, from a community point of view, and we decided it was something we should do.”
Acheatel and the board first had to make two important decisions that would shape everything else about the preschool: the educational philosophy and the director. For the first, they chose the Reggio Emilia approach, which emphasizes community support for families and parental involvement, the role of the environment, teachers as learners, the documentation of learning and the emphasis on the individual child.
“[The Reggio Emilia approach] is pretty harmonious and in sync with the philosophy that we have in grades K-12, which is trying to design a program that looks at the individual child, all aspects of child development…The Reggio philosophy says take a look at the individual child to see what it is they need in their development [that is unique from other children their age].”
Because the Reggio approach is just that — an approach rather than a program with a set of materials and textbooks — it’s very open to SDJA’s Judaism-rich curriculum in the development of the child, Acheatel says.
Secondly, Acheatel and SDJA’s board selected Kira Rivkin as its new preschool director.
Rivkin, who has worked in early childhood education for nearly 10 years, has taught at several preschools and childcare facilities in San Diego, including the Lawrence Family JCC’s Nierman Preschool and the La Jolla United Methodist Church Nursery School, where she was introduced to the Reggio approach.
“When I started at the nursery school, I had heard about it in class, but I had never actually applied it in the classroom,” says Rivkin, who earned her degree in psychology from San Diego State University and is currently working toward her master’s in child development. “It was great to have mentors who have done it for years to lead the way.”
Rivkin, who immigrated with her family from Russia at age 12, says she was born into the Soviet Union and grew up with little Jewish influence, since the government had not allowed her grandparents’ or parents’ generations to practice religion, nor her own generation during the first part of her life. The Yiddish, Hebrew and synagogue activity that had been so prevalent in the lives of her great-grandparents instead turned to questions of her identity, of anti-Semitism, of difference from her friends, for Rivkin. That’s why, she says, she’s excited to help instill in her preschool students a strong Jewish identity.
“As I grow and mature and want to celebrate Jewish traditions and learn more, I want to spread that to the children,” she says. “I think that is so important. It’s something I didn’t have growing up, and I think that sense of identity really develops at a young age.”
With SDJA’s pluralistic Jewish foundation and its Reggio approach, she says, she’ll have every opportunity to do so.
“A lot of the foundations of the Reggio approach and Judaism are the same,” she says. “They very much stress the community and the relationships we establish with one another…Kavod [respect] is also [taught] throughout the classroom.”
One of the most exciting aspects of SDJA’s new preschool, Rivkin says, is the possibility that children could literally go all the way through SDJA from the time they’re 6 weeks old through high school graduation.
“For my preschoolers starting as young as 2, developing those relationships, that set of community, and getting to know one another and growing together throughout their educational experience is fantastic,” she says. “ What a unique opportunity to really have them develop that sense of Jewish identity, strong Jewish values, a sense of community, of giving back, but also the love of learning.”
One Reggio-inspired aspect of the school that’s very unique, she says, is its integration of the community and of the children’s home lives. According to Rivkin, before the school year begins, her teachers each visits their new students in the students’ homes for about 30 minutes to introduce themselves, learn about the child in a home environment and establish a connection with the family.
“When you enter somebody’s home, she says, you really get a good sense of their Jewish identity, and it’s a very nice opportunity to have that conversation and get a sense of who that class will be. That’s just the first step, and we have ongoing communication with the families throughout the year.”
So far, the response has been overwhelmingly positive, Acheatel says. About 30 families have already registered their children, with capacity for this first year being set at about 40.
“We’re just very excited to be able to offer this,” he says, “and obviously there are quite a few families who are excited about it, too.”
For more information about SDJA or its new preschool, call (858) 704-3700 or visit www.sdja.com. A
SDJA’s Preschool at a Glance
Ages accepted: 2-5.
Before and after care: Yes. The base program is 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Families with 2- and 3-year-olds can choose three or five days per week. Children ages 4-5 must attend five days per week. Before care is 7:45-9 a.m. and after care is 1-3 p.m., with the potential to stay as late as 3-5:30 p.m. The most popular program matches the hours of the lower school, with preschoolers attending 7:45 a.m.-3 p.m.
Tuition incentives: Parents receive 25 percent off the cost of tuition for grades K-2 for each year their child attends preschool. One year of preschool is 25 percent off kindergarten tuition, two years in preschool is 25 percent off kindergarten and first grade, and three years in preschool is 25 percent off grades K-3.
Teacher to student ratio: 18 children maximum per class, with two to three teachers per class.
About Reggio Emilia
The Reggio Emilia approach was started by Loris Malaguzzi and local parents who lived in the Italian town of Reggio Emilia following World War II. The town had a tradition of cooperative work in all areas of the economy and organization, so when it came time to rebuild its schools, the teachers and parents worked together to run them — something that had been disrupted under Fascism and Nazism. In the next few decades, teachers in Italy aimed to innovate the educational system in tune with democracy, the modern world and greater relevance for children in their early development as individuals. Today, the approach emphasizes an emergent (self-guided) and hands-on curriculum, a soothing, nurturing environment based on children’s interests, community, respect, responsibility and the role of the teacher as observer, facilitator, and documenter of students’ learning.