Looking back on a labor of love

Founder: Jean Grinspoon, who recently retired as executive director of Bet Yeladim Preschool and Kindergarten, will be honored Sunday.

September 10, 2004|By Tawanda W. Johnson | Tawanda W. Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For almost 30 years, Bet Yeladim Preschool and Kindergarten has been a labor of love for Jean Grinspoon, the school's recently retired executive director and one of its founders.

Grinspoon, along with four other mothers, saw a need in the community to provide a safe learning environment for children and a place where they could be taught the fundamentals of Judaism.

After planning for less than a year, the Columbia preschool opened its doors in 1975 with 21 children in two part-time classes.

Today, the school offers 15 full-day, part-day and kindergarten classes to 275 children, and employs more than 50 staff members at its two locations: the Meeting House in Oakland Mills and Beth Shalom Congregation, both in Columbia.

"We were living in a small community, and there weren't that many options for preschools, but we thought a Jewish preschool would be a place where children could learn in a safe haven ... and be proud of being Jewish," Grinspoon said.

Grinspoon will be honored at 10 a.m. Sunday with a brunch and retirement party at Turf Valley Resort.

"I'm deeply humbled by how people feel about the school," she said. "I've always believed it's been like a family. I have worked with some great staff members. They've challenged me, and I've challenged them."

While the other four founding mothers left the school after their children moved on, Grinspoon stayed put, wearing many hats at Bet Yeladim, including board member, teacher and executive director. She also oversaw the establishment of a full-day accredited kindergarten class that began in 1994.

"I just think it all happened for a reason, and it was always good timing," she said.

Bet Yeladim has experienced tremendous growth over the years, as word spread about its programs and staff.

"I have families who are absolutely in awe to see their children do these Hebrew blessings," she said.

Grinspoon, who has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and years of teaching experience, said all of Bet Yeladim's teachers have four-year degrees and are certified to teach early childhood education. They also receive continuous training through workshops, she said.

"We have a high-quality staff, and they want to get better," said Grinspoon, who described the school's board of directors as "an enlightened group and ... really supportive."

The school's programs center around the Jewish holidays, and children learn through songs, stories and finger play, said Grinspoon.

Her husband, Al, calls the school "the Harvard of preschools," saying his wife's dedication has been phenomenal.

"She has an ability to bring parents together for a common cause," he said. "She has total love for the school, and she started it because of her kids. Now, our grandchild attends the school."

He said his wife's work at Bet Yeladim has touched many lives, from those in Columbia to Park Heights to Reisterstown, to name a few.

"She is so well-known and so well-liked that it's hard to go out to dinner" without someone coming up to speak to her, he said.

Barbara Davis, an administrator at the school, said Jean Grinspoon deserves to be celebrated.

"No one deserves this celebration more. She has worked endless hours. Bet Yeladim has probably been at the top of her focus, along with her family," Davis said.

For the past seven years, Beth Ditman said she has watched her two children - one a fourth-grader and the other a kindergartner - develop into kind people through the school.

"It's a very loving and nurturing environment, and the kids feel that. And Jean is a big part of that, and her staff is that way too," said Ditman. "It's also a Judaic program that's [woven] into the curriculum."

Grinspoon said her greatest accomplishment at the school has been "the creation of a Jewish community in Howard County ... where families became friends because their kids" attended Bet Yeladim.

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