Big changes at TBI school but heart remains the same

Robin McConnell & Deborah Pruitt

by Steven Felschundneff | steven@claremont-courier.com

When Pomona resident Deborah Pruitt became the director of the preschool at Temple Beth Israel the most common way for new families to find the school was through the Yellow Pages. Thirty two years later, social media and word-of-mouth have taken over as the school’s main outreach and Ms. Pruitt is ready to retire.

At the end of last semester she handed over the leadership role to Claremont resident and veteran teacher, Robin McConnell. At the same time the school adopted a new name, Tree of Life Children’s Center at Temple Beth Israel.

That’s a lot of change for an institution that prides itself in offering a consistent educational experience for children ages two to five. But the core values of the school remain constant and are fundamentally focused on whole child development, emphasizing family to school communication, building relationships and development of the individual child within a social setting.

“And it’s all been within a context of Reform Judaism,” Ms. Pruitt said “Meaning the values and traditions, and sharing that with everybody—Jewish and non-Jewish families.”

When Ms. Pruitt started her job, the school was only two years old itself, and was quite small. She has seen it grow over the years while remaining a manageable size, with current enrollment of about 40 families.

Asked what she has been doing since her retirement, Ms. Pruitt responded with a smile, “I feel like I am playing hooky. I can go in the yard with a book and a cup of coffee in the morning and not worry. Just relaxing.”

Through her tenure it was called Temple Beth Israel Preschool and Daycare, a typical term of the 80s that did not reflect where the board of trustees wanted the school to head.

“One of the things [the board] was talking about was the future of the school and the potential for having an infant toddler program here or school age children who already participate in the Jewish education,” Ms. McConnell said. “So we just wanted [to use] children’s center to be a more open relevant term to the current times.”

“Daycare is often thought of as being a custodial supervisorial program for time while parents work. But as Robin was saying, it’s so much more than just a place to have your child. It’s about children’s development,” Ms. Pruitt said.

Prior to taking over as the new director, Ms. McConnell was involved in early childhood education for almost 20 years, having started as an assistant teacher when her children were young, including working at TBI with Ms. Pruitt. She took a break to earn a masters degree and then returned to serve as a lead teacher at Temple Beth while instructing others how to be teachers of young students in her second job at night.

For the last two and a half years she was the director of preschool programs for the YMCA in Coachella Valley.

“I learned a lot and became a much better administrator through that experience, but I am really excited to be back at a smaller program where I can work more directly with children and families,” Ms. McConnell said. “I am super excited about my return here because as a teacher, I always felt at home here. I am not Jewish so I can speak to the openness of the community.”

As the students return in just over one month there will be a fair amount of excitement and anticipation but also trepidation following a year when every school had to close or severely reduce capacity.

The school will be offering “stable cohorts” in the fall for COVID safety with each classroom operating independently so at no time during the day will groups be coming together. Many of the restrictions imposed by the county are not required right now, but the children’s center will be sticking to the strictest protocols for health and safety. The teachers and children are masked at all times regardless of vaccination status and the children will be grouped for the “safest environment possible.”

“From the parents I am speaking with right now [they are] really looking forward to giving their child the opportunity to be in a social setting, but of course are nervous about how that works and how that looks and we really want the families to be here and be part of our program again,” Ms. McConnell said.

“At least we have proven to the parents that you children can be masked and still have a super good time, still engage with others and it works, Ms. Pruitt said “And it’s still a healthy and safe environment.”

Ms. McConnell noted that three parents with enrolled children for this fall were students at the school in its early years. That symbolizes the connection many families feel toward the program including teachers who have dedicated years to the children’s center.

“It’s all about connection. We are not just a Claremont preschool, there are wonderful preschools in the area, but we really extend much further. It’s partially because we are the only Jewish preschool in the area but its also because we are so welcoming.

“Children feel grounded here and their families feel grounded. You have to have a happy staff, working with the child and respecting them as individuals. We are child centered. We are interested in what the child wants to do, and what they are working on and honoring that,” Ms Pruitt said.

The school will be open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday when the fall semester begins August 30. Parents can choose from a wide selection of schedules including morning and afternoon sessions.

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