Merging and moving two schools on the Campus

by | May 9, 2024 | Other News

I can’t believe that it has been 20 years since we moved into the Sandler Family Campus! The opening day of school is kind of blurry, but the memories of the events that occurred before moving day are still crisp.

It was my honor to be selected to be the director of the Strelitz Early Childhood Center (Gan Ami) and to work along with my professional peer and friend, Beth Kinnear, who was the Beginnings program director.

Building and design discussions took place with Paul Turok and Andrew Fink – talks that resulted in storage areas, indoor activity rooms for physical education and JCC supplementary classes, and our unique cooking center where students could combine “subjects” like math, science, and Jewish holiday foods. I met with the marketing team to help firm-up the preschool division names, logo designs, and Pantone colors, followed by helping to write copy for a full-color brochure that included mission, philosophy, and program descriptions. Beth and I had the fun responsibilities of meeting with professional playground designers – I worked on the designs and equipment for the outdoor playground while she worked on the indoor playroom near the fitness center.

Adam and Sam Zelenka on the first day of school at the campus.
Adam and Sam Zelenka on the first day of school at the campus.

Once everything was designed and planned, we inventoried our current supplies and equipment and decided what to take to the new building and to which classroom it would be assigned. We packed, labeled, and numbered boxes ad nauseum, certainly a bit nervous that everything would end up where it was supposed to be. Not sure why we worried – Walter Camp had everything under control!

These were the building pieces, but the intellectual and emotional pieces were the harder part. Beth had built the Shalom Children’s Center, a successful preschool/day care program at the JCC in Norfolk.

I had developed a preschool and extended day program at the Hebrew Academy of Tidewater in Virginia Beach. Now we were being charged with creating a single program to serve our students and plan for the future. Beth said on many occasions that in estimating future enrollment, “we were making plans for students who haven’t been born yet,” and she was right!

We needed to create an entity that encouraged parents from both programs to enroll their children in a new environment. As enrollment opened, we met with parents in small groups in private homes to create an intimate and caring atmosphere and share our vision. We interviewed current faculty and created teaching teams. Trying to keep friend groups together while integrating students from both schools in each classroom was a challenge.

We must have done something right because we opened with 125 preschoolers, ages 2 to 4. Beth quickly started planning classes and programs for children ages 0 to 2 and their parents. I started to learn all the ins and outs of taking 3- and 4-year-olds swimming and how long a day care day really is!

There were challenges and concerns. Things were different and even adults are resistant to change. Over time, we settled into our new lives. Teaching teams coalesced, students made new friends, parents bonded and created an active preschool parents’ program. Traditions morphed into newer traditions. Everyone gradually learned to “play in the same sandbox.”

I still spend a lot of time at the Sandler Family Campus and marvel at how fluid this building is. The school cafeteria is now a place for JCC vacation camps. The old senior room now holds cribs for a full infant program. The indoor playground became, for a time, childcare for parents in the fitness center. The preschool offices have been moved and toddler classrooms and an art room have taken their place. Classrooms became JFS offices and are now classrooms again. But, as our first class of two-year-old students prepare to graduate from college, I am sure of one thing – the sounds of happy, creative, inquisitive, loved, children fill these spaces.

After 20 years, that hasn’t changed.