February is Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month (JDAIM), a unified effort among Jewish organizations and communities worldwide to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities and those who love them.
Jewish LearningWorks believes that all children deserve to be welcomed, included and embraced by the Jewish community regardless of individual needs or learning style. Inclusion has always been a tenet of our work, and over the years, we have collaborated with many schools around the Bay Area.
Today, we want to feature Rachel Fenyves, Director at Gan Avraham Preschool in Oakland, CA. We celebrate her and her team for their remarkable work in breaking down barriers to student opportunity and inclusion.
You can learn more about Rachel and Gan Avraham through the short interview below.
What’s like to be a preschool director during the pandemic?
It’s been tough. Navigating the pandemic has been a huge challenge, so from the start I formed a Covid task force to help me. I consult with doctors, our executive leadership, and parents on making the right decisions for the health and safety of our community. I wouldn’t be able to do this without a team. I’ve also leaned on other directors as we are all going through the same thing. We all need all the support we can get. The pandemic has added a layer to the job that carries a tremendous weight. It’s been hard on the teachers and the parents. I’m doing the best I can to support everyone, and take care of myself at the same time. I’m seeing a high level of burnout which is concerning. Thankfully, the children are doing an amazing job. They go with the flow and keep us grounded in the present moment. The kids are still being kids.
Individual needs, learning styles and the social-emotional development of children are top of mind for educators and families right now. Tell us about your efforts to meet children’s needs where they are, and the impact it has had on them and their families.
We have tried to keep preschool as normal as possible for the children. Thankfully, this year we’ve been able to mostly get back to our pre-pandemic programing which has made a big difference for the teachers, children, and families. We understand that all children are unique and each have their own style and pace of learning. For example, not all two year olds can wear a mask right away for 5 hours a day. We work with them and the family to figure out what they can tolerate, what they can connect with, and then we begin training. These things that have become habitual for many of us over the last 2 years, are new for our youngest children. There is a learning process that needs to happen before they can be successful 100% of the time. Lots of patience, relationship building, and learning about the child is how we get there.
We are here to support each child and family. Building relationships with them is the foundation to everything we do here. We strive to have open and transparent communication with the families about our observations of their children. We learn together with them and we see the families as our partners. We all have the same goal in mind and we work together to help the child thrive.
How do you empower and support your staff in terms of special needs inclusion?
Learning about special needs inclusion is an ongoing process. Unfortunately, special needs ECE courses are not a requirement when fulfilling your units to become an early childhood educator. So, we as directors need to make it a priority and learn along with our teachers. We utilize the resources in our community by bringing in experts in the field to teach and train us. At the end of the day, the teachers want what is best for the child so they are very open to learning how best to support them.
I make myself available to the teachers to assist in the classroom and for observations and reflection. This is a team effort, and I think being available to them helps them feel more confident and supported.
How has this awareness and training informed or added to the culture at Gan Avraham?
We are a community of learners. We want to be able to support each child in any way that is needed. We recognize our own growth through challenges and we remember what we’ve learned for the next time. We cannot predict anything when it comes to working with young children. We remain open and present, and we focus on our relationships.
We will be able to get through challenging times if we stay strong in our relationships with each other, the children, and families in our community. We also prioritize building relationships with the outside agencies that may be supporting children in our school. We all need to work together for the child.
How do you keep breaking down barriers to student opportunity and inclusion from within your school community?
One of our core values is B’tzelem Elohim, created in the divine image. We strive to stay grounded in this value when thinking about the children we serve. We see all children as unique and deserving of a quality education. As early childhood Jewish educators we feel it is important that all children have access to Jewish education, regardless of their abilities.
The broader Jewish community is diverse in many ways and we hope that our school reflects that. We believe that all children benefit from being in an inclusive environment.
How has Jewish LearningWorks supported you in this journey?
Jewish LearningWorks has been a tremendous support! They have provided consultation, observations, attended meetings with us and the families, and offered workshops. They continue to be available to us and we are deeply grateful for their partnership. We would not be able to feel as confident in this work without their help.
Our Inclusion and Special Needs Support
Learn more about how we support early childhood educators build and sustain inclusive classrooms, and equip them to carry on their work while taking care of themselves as well.