The Foundation School at Congregation Neveh Shalom has long been at the forefront of early childhood education. When Rabbi Joshua Stampfer created the city’s first Jewish preschool in 1954, it was also one of the earliest child care facilities registered with the state of Oregon. The school’s license number is 33 – “That would have been one of the earliest numbers,” according to Kathleen Hynes, legal and compliance manager of the Office of Child Care, Early Learning Div.
This fall the school celebrates its 60th birthday. And like many elder statesmen in today’s society, Foundation School continues to grow and evolve – building on the traits that have made it a success and adding some new twists to fit our 21st century world. A longer, more flexible school schedule will feature new teaching methods that both inspire children to learn and explore and give parents a window into their child’s preschool experience.
Early Childhood Director Leah Conley, in her first year with the school, says the preschool has been a perennial success in part due to its small class sizes; while the state allows up to 20 students in prekindergarten classes, the Foundation School caps those classes at 14, with no more than seven students per teacher. The intimate setting and longevity of teachers has also inspired a teaching style that responds to student needs and interests, says Leah. Leah and her husband, Josh, moved from Chicago to Portland last July with their two children, Elliot, 4, and Amelia, almost 2. Both children will attend Foundation School in the fall. In Chicago Leah spent six years as the religious school director for Anshe Emet, that city’s largest Conservative congregation.
During her first year here, Leah says she has watched and learned. She reports being impressed with the teachers’ energy, creativity and child-centered approach to learning. She has also spent the year learning with teachers at the Opal School at the Portland Children’s Museum to discover more about the Reggio Emilia educational philosophy that is inspiring some of the changes at the Foundation School.
Through the adoption of emergent curriculum this year, Foundation students are partnering with their teachers to further the learning process, explains Leah. Traditionally, educators have a list of topics to be taught. With emergent curriculum, teachers and students collaborate to discover common interests that they are excited to learn about. Of course, Leah says, as a Jewish preschool the school does so within a framework of the Jewish calendar to create a “Joyful Jewish Preschool.”
One of Leah’s favorite examples of child-directed learning occurred during the students’ fall exploration of nature: “Instead of telling the students, ‘We’re going outside to look at trees,’ the teacher said, ‘Let’s go see what we can find.’ On the way outside, one student saw a spider under the stairwell and all the other students gathered around to watch the spider, fascinated by its movement in its web. Based on this experience, the teacher took a large cardboard box and wove string inside it to make a giant spider web that the students could climb into and explore. This began a unit on spiders that the students were genuinely interested in.”
Leah says one big change inspired by the Reggio Emilia method is the documentation process that benefits children and their parents. As students explore a topic, teachers record their words and photograph the process. When they see that their words are so important their teacher put them up in their classroom for friends and visitors to see, “It’s a huge boost to their self-esteem,” says Emily Ail, who has been teaching at Foundation School for nine years. The documentation also gives parents a window into their child’s day. While the school provides many opportunities for family participation and parent volunteers in the classroom, parents inevitably miss some memorable moments.
“Parents can’t be there daily for these moments,” says Leah. “The documentation gives them the opportunity to ‘be there’ when the light bulb goes on.”
When parents experience their child’s “school voice,” Leah says it adds to the family voice and creates a more harmonious melody.
The school’s new schedule also responds to the needs of today’s working parents. The main school day runs from 9 am – noon with weekday options from 8 am to 6 pm. However, Leah says that rather than providing just day care in the afternoon, Foundation School offers afternoon electives including soccer, dance, art and Hebrew.
A lot has changed since Rabbi Stampfer decided his first priority on arriving in Portland was the children: “They were our future! In creating a secure and promising future for any enterprise, one must lay a secure foundation.” What hasn’t changed is the impact of the school. Rabbi Stampfer says the school’s greatest achievement has been “to recruit a remarkable number of teachers who have truly created a firm Jewish foundation for the lives of thousands of members of our Jewish community who treasure their memories of their Foundation School years.”
Foundation School: Congregation Neveh Shalom, 2900 SW Peaceful Lane | foundationschoolpdx.org