In August 2011, parents of preschoolers at Watch Me Grow were purchasing backpacks, preparing their children to go back to school or even attend school for the first time. At the same time teachers were winding down their summers and getting excited for a new school year.
Then on August 28th the unthinkable happened. Rising floodwaters, the result of Hurricane Irene, poured into the bottom floor of Temple Beth El Mekor Chayim of Cranford and Westfield (TBEMC) destroying the Watch Me Grow preschool classrooms, the TBEMC religious school classrooms, the TBEMC community library and the youth lounge. By mid-September it was unclear if Watch Me Grow would open. Within days it was clear it could not. Many parents of newly enrolled and previous students received the news after 10 pm the evening the decision was made. Program director Tamara Reuben, holding back her own tears, tried to console parents who were suddenly faced with the need to find an emergency placement for their child or children when all they wanted was Watch Me Grow.
"One of the hardest moments for me, was to have to call the parents and inform them that the school was completely flooded and classes would not be held. The parents were devastated. They felt that the love, personal care, attention and thorough academic preparation that the Watch Me Grow nursery school provides for its students is unique and far reaching. Many of these families have older children who went through our program and are thriving in public school. The parents wished that their younger children would experience the same.”
Lisa Fabrizo isn’t from Cranford but she opted to have her son attend Watch Me Grow. “My son Nicholas, attended Watch Me Grow Preschool for two years. He loved going to school and was excited every morning when he was dropped off. My husband and I found that not only was he having fun and socializing but he was also gaining a solid pre-academic foundation. In addition, we found the staff to be very warm and caring as well as extremely flexible. The staff members at Watch Me Grow made us feel welcome, and also included our whole family in holiday activities and community events that took place at the synagogue. We were so happy with the program and staff that we encouraged other families to send their children there as well. Prior to the flood that closed the preschool, we registered our daughter to begin attending the program. We were so saddened that she would not be able to have the same wonderful experience that our son did.”
The damage was extensive. Flooring was removed; the existing furniture and many of the toys and materials had to be discarded. Committed to rebuild, dedicated members of the TBEMC Board of Education toured preschools and researched what could be done to upgrade the facility while rebuilding. “We did extensive research during the process of rebuilding the classroom.” said Rhondi Solomon. “We visited other pre-schools and conferred with their directors. We met with professional consultants and also with pre-school parents to get their input on what they would like to see in a pre-school.”
As a result, today the Watch Me Grow classrooms hold state of the art furniture, new toys, and piles of paper ready to be turned into crafts. Besides all new furnishings (desks, chairs, bookcases, toy shelves, blocks and block storage cases, easels, puppet stage-dramatic play center), the rooms were painted and new floor tiles and carpets were installed. Once the new lighting is installed over $35,000 will have been invested in refurbishing and upgrading the space.
One year later, as people in Cranford were getting back into routines and some were finally moving into their homes after extensive post Hurricane repairs were finally finished, parents of children who were enrolled in the program prior to the flood eagerly waited for news that the Watch Me Grow doors would open. Once again, they were devastated by the news that they would not. Even with a strong enrollment, there were not enough children enrolled in each class to allow Watch Me Grow to get back to doing what it does best, nurturing and teaching.
Amazingly, despite being closed for renovations, Watch Me Grow was recently voted #1 Preschool in the area by readers of the Cranford Patch. In many ways it is not a surprise. Beloved by parents and children, the Watch Me Grow preschool has seen generations of families come through its doors. For example, Craig Schwartz, raised in Cranford, attended preschool when it was called Temple Beth El nursery from 1975-1976. His daughter and son later attended Watch Me Grow; Jessica, from 2003 to 2006 and Joshua, from 2006-2009.
The nursery school has been housed in the current TBEMC building since it opened in 1960 and is one of the oldest preschools in Union County. Pictures line the school hallway of preschool children laughing and playing with their friends, a bittersweet reminder of what was and what can still be. Although the storm destroyed the interiors of the classroom, the storm could not destroy the tight knit community created by Watch Me Grow.
Currently, Tamara Reuben, with the heads of the Board of Education at TBEMC Phyillis Kandl and Mrs. Solomon (both parents of former students) are working tirelessly on the Grand Re-Opening of Watch Me Grow. Watch Me Grow is actively enrolling children in a three day 2’s class for children in Cranford, Clark, Westfield, Roselle, Linden, and Garwood slated to open during the month of January. Parents of children just turning 2 and looking for an introduction to school in a community based environment have chance to help rebuild something while providing their children a unique educational opportunity.
Watch Me Grow’s multilingual instruction includes an “Art around the World” multisensory approach to learning about cultures around the world through music and movement and art literacy. Open to children of all religions and denominations, Watch Me Grow, provides a culturally rich environment with opportunities to participate in monthly challah baking and learn from Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein during the Friday celebration of Shabbat. Parents often participate in classroom activities further solidifying the connection between school and home. Suzanne and Mark Levine, had three children attend the Watch Me grow program and were pleased not only with the cultural, social and emotional emphasis but were impressed with the academic program as well. “As my children entered elementary school, their reading, writing and math skills were far more advanced than the average child their age. They were prepared mentally, physically and most of all emotionally.”
In addition to the nursery school program, the newest Watch Me Grow families have a new JCC Enrichment Program to look forward to this year. The JCC of Scotch Plains identified the TBEMC building as the perfect venue to house additional preschool enrichment classes including “Mommy n’ Me music” and “Mommy n’ Me Fetchercise” designed for children 6-18 months.
Rabbi Benjamin Goldstein of TBEMC is excited for the preschool to reopen. “Since the closure, we have taken the last year and a half to make our program stronger and better than ever. We are excited to reopen our preschool, and to be able to continue to provide families with the quality education they have come to expect from our program. We look forward to renewing our relationship with those families who have come to love what we do here, and we are eager to forge relationships with new families who are seeking a nurturing and enriching environment for their children.”
Parents interested in enrolling their children should contact Ms. Reuben at 908-276-KIDS to schedule a tour.
Editor's Note: This article is a press release from Watch Me Grow nursery school.