Rendering of the Gross Motor Skills Center at Hillel Day School

Philanthropists direct funds to aid growth of Hillel’s youngest students.

Two significant gifts, one by the Samuel and Jean Frankel Jewish Heritage Foundation and the other by the William Davidson Foundation, are paving the way for a major addition to Hillel Day School’s Early Childhood Center for children ages 18 months to 5.

This fall, the 15,000-square-foot center at Hillel will align with the rest of the campus, which was renovated over the last several years to advance skills in communication, collaboration and creativity through a project-based learning approach that involves the integration of disciplines and STEAM activities. The ECC will include state-of-the-art learning suites, a central square or kikar for large gatherings, a kitchen, a large indoor playscape, teacher workspaces, and an outdoor playground and garden.

“The expansion of the early childhood education program at Hillel benefits our entire Jewish community,” said Darin McKeever, president/CEO of the Davidson Foundation. “More children will be able to begin their Jewish education in their preschool years, establishing their Jewish identities within a community committed to religious and academic excellence.”

Hillel’s expanded ECC will be licensed for 180 students, up from 140. “I feel honored we will be able to educate more Jewish children,” said Robin Pappas, director of early education. “We’ve had a wait list for the last three years, and we will no longer have to turn away families.”

For a preschool that opened in 2010 with 69 students, the exponential growth is a promising sign that despite a decline in the Jewish population of Detroit over the last decade, there is a growing demand for high-quality Jewish early childhood education options. The Hillel preschool is accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and has received a four-star rating from Great Start to Quality in Michigan.

“We know from demographic studies and our own wait list that there are more Jewish preschool students who could enroll in a program like ours,” said Steve Freedman, head of school. “We are confident a larger ECC will result in increased enrollment in the K-8 program.”

Pappas says the renovation “comes from a journey following best practices in Jewish early childhood education.”

In May, Pappas and three teachers will take a study trip to Italy to immerse themselves in the Reggio Emilia approach to learning — from a Jewish perspective. This approach emphasizes a child’s environment with access to natural materials, hands-on activities and multiple points of view in a setting that values the mind and creativity of each individual child.

“The ECC is an exceptional preschool that partners with us on our family’s desire to raise passionate, kind, inquisitive and independent children who are proud to be Jewish,” said parent Amye Charfoos of Huntington Woods.

An official groundbreaking ceremony, open to the community, will take place at the Farmington Hills school at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Jan. 16.

“Our donors are truly second to none,” Freedman said, “when it comes to their commitment to Jewish education and to a strong and vibrant future in Jewish Detroit.”

By Gabriella Burman Special to the Jewish News