As you may have read, I’ve been searching for the right preschool for my older daughter, Frieda, who will turn 3 next fall. I just learned today that we got a spot in the program of our choice. It’s perfect in every way, except one.
It’s not Jewish.
When I first started looking for the right school for us, I spoke with a family friend who is a consultant to local Jewish preschools. She recommended a number of synagogue programs, as well as the local JCC. And then she suggested that I check out one non-Jewish preschool, noting that it is so good she sends her teachers there when they need training. I agreed to go visit, even though I was certain that we would choose a Jewish school.
The Jewish preschools I visited were… fine. They were all clean and safe and the teachers seemed nice enough, but none of them felt like the right place for my daughter, and each one had at least one fatal flaw. One director told me how the kids did lots of worksheets because “even though they aren’t great for learning, the kids love them.”
Frieda’s a color-in-the-lines kind of girl who would like nothing better than to do worksheets all day, which is precisely why I don’t want that for her. Another school required that all 3-year-olds attend five days per week, and yet another one offered only 30 minutes of outdoor time all day because they had so many classrooms competing for playground time.
The program we chose is excellent in almost every way. It’s close to our house and small. The kids spend an hour outside each day, unless it’s raining or ridiculously cold. The staff has a high retention rate, and the directors have years of experience. There is a lot of interaction between the age groups, and they welcome parent involvement. They emphasize child-centered play, and the teachers spend their time listening to the kids and following their leads, designing activities according to the children’s interests. They don’t focus on themes or holidays or worksheets or canned projects. Rather, all the art on the walls was clearly done by 3 year olds, with minimal guidance from teachers.
Overall, it’s great. But, it’s not Jewish. And if I sound like I’m trying to justify my decision, well, perhaps I am. I always pictured sending my children to a Jewish preschool, and I wonder if we should have decided that the Jewish education is more important than philosophical approach or recess. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to make that choice. But we are diaspora Jews, and I suspect this won’t be the first time we’re faced with this decision. What would you have done? What did you do?