Birmingham, Mobile congregations revamp their preschools

Two Alabama congregations are relaunching their preschool programs this year, with open houses in early January.

Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El is transforming its preschool program into the Discovery School, starting in June, while the Gan Shalom Preschool at Ahavas Chesed in Mobile will become GSP Preschool this fall.

Birmingham’s Emanu-El has hosted a preschool for two decades, with Temple Tots classes from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. daily. The new program will be full day, year-round.

Rabbi Laila Haas said “more and more parents are working, so the 9-to-1 program no longer serves that need.” The congregation recently had a series of parlor meetings, and many parents were requesting a full-day option for pre-school.

Haas noted that the school is perfectly located on Southside, not far from the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the downtown area. People “basically pass us to go downtown.”

The school’s name was selected because “early childhood education is all about moments of discovery,” Haas said. They learn “with their hands, with their eyes, with their feet.” The school’s philosophy will be summed up by “Awaken, Wonder, Engage.”

Because the school is housed in a synagogue, it will be “a school that will develop the whole child — socially, intellectually and spiritually.” As before, the school will be open to non-Jews as well as the broader Jewish community. There is a weekly Shabbat celebration, and supplemental instruction in Hebrew and Spanish.

Though the program will be year-round, the summer months will have more of a day camp flavor.

There are three preschools in Birmingham’s Jewish institutions. The Levite Jewish Community Center has the Cohn Early Childhood Learning Center, and Bais Ariel Chabad Center has Chai Tots.

The long-term goal is for Discovery School to become accredited, which can happen only after a school has been open for a couple of years. Haas said “we are fortunate that we have degreed teachers already in our program.”

For now, they will concentrate on maintaining the low student to teacher ratio and the large, bright classrooms.

Haas noted that there is plenty of room to expand the school at Emanu-El in the future. There are “a lot of young Jewish families moving back to Birmingham and they have young children or are just now getting pregnant.”

The first open house will be Jan. 9 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and 4 to 8 p.m.

At Ahavas Chesed, a search is underway for a new director as Gan Shalom plans to reopen in the fall under its new name. The school, which had been open since 1993, closed after the 2012-13 year because of low projected enrollment for 2013-14.

Michelle Touchton stated that many congregants felt the school was “an important part of not only the Jewish community, but the community at large,” so a committee of congregants and former teachers was formed to rework the school’s structure and marketing.

The school begins with a two-day program for “walking one year olds” and has classes for ages two, three and pre-Kindergarten.

Registration and program information for the 2014-15 school year will be available at the open house, Jan. 5 from 2 to 4 p.m.