When you talk to educators, you hear about making connections. About forming and maintaining genuine relationships.
Much of those connections are intellectual, to ideas and texts, and emotional, to teachers and other students. On a broader level, there is the many-stranded, multi-directional network that connects the various constituent groups that make up a school community.
When it comes to preschool, though, most of the connection — or at least the connection that has to be nurtured consciously — is between the parents and the school. The children are too young to realize that connections take work — for them, they don’t — but for the grown-ups, they do.
Technology has helped parents connect with their kids’ schools, but it poses its own set of demands. First, it takes a great deal of teachers’ time. (More on that later.) And it also takes a great deal of tweaking to make it work for schools. The internet, for all its fabled near-magical ability to give everybody everything, right away, can be a very rigid place.
A few young Israeli entrepreneurs (note that when you use any two of those three words, the third inevitably follows) saw an opening that they are filling with a new product called Remini, which is used a great deal in Israel, to some extent across this country, including by Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, Gan Aviv in Fair Lawn and Bergenfield, and by schools as far afield in every way as one in Dubai.
Raz Wasserstein, 33, one of those entrepreneurs, has been spending some time in northern New Jersey, promoting his product. Like many Israelis involved in high tech, he met his partners and gained his skills in the Israeli Defense Forces. He has what he calls his “first and second degrees” — his undergraduate and masters’ degrees — in information and systems engineering; the IDF sent him to school, made him an officer, and put him to work in the prime minister’s office. Israel is now old and well-established enough to have a history of such training; “my parents did the same thing, on the same course,” Mr. Wasserstein said.
When he and his friends brainstormed about what niche they could fill, they thought of providing software that would allow parents and schools to be in touch, using any device they wanted. They decided to name it Remini, a real-sounding nonsense word in Hebrew, as it is in English. It’s taken from the word “reminiscence.” “Someone thought it would be a good name,” Mr. Wasserstein said, working on the theory that if you have a top-notch new product, you can lay off a bit on the branding.
Remini allows teachers and other educators to upload photos and messages to parents. Messages can go to the whole school, an entire class, a specific group of parents, or just one set of them. Parents can save photos and messages on the child’s own timeline — it’s backed up in the cloud — so a child’s entire early childhood can be documented and parents — and grandparents, should the parents decide to invite them — can gain access to it easily. Parents cannot upload content to the main part of the app, although they can to the timeline, but if the teacher or administrator agrees, they can exchange private messages.
It can be organized in any way that the educators choose, and it can be used on all platforms — phones, tablets, and desktops. Each parent has a separate private place for each of his or her children.
“It’s been more than three years, and we’re kind of big in Israel,” Mr. Wasserstein said. “We have agreements with the biggest preschools in Israel, and we have thousands of preschools there.” In North America, Remini has signed agreements with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Union for Reform Judaism. It has signed schools in California, Chicago, Miami, Ohio, and Boston so far.
Which brings us to the school in Dubai. “It was quite a surprise for us,” Mr. Wasserstein said. “We found out when we saw the Arabic names in our database. Most of the names we have are Hebrew, and then there was Fatma and Anwar.” The school, an English-language preschool, had responded to an email that did not hide the fact that Remini is Israeli but did not trumpet that fact either.
There are interesting differences between preschools in the United States and Israel, Mr. Wasserstein added parenthetically. “In the United States, there are usually between four and 20 classes in a preschool. In Israel, there are at most two or three classes per school.” That’s not because classes are not organized by age, but because each school caters to children of just one age group, and children age out of school after school as they grow older. Also, the student/teacher ratio is much higher in Israel than here. “In most preschool classes, there is the teacher and assistant teacher, and then about 30 kids,” he said. That means that Remini is used differently here and there. “In Israel, we see more material uploaded for the whole class; here, there are more individual uploads than there are in Israel,” Mr. Wasserstein added.
Alice Berdy, Barnert Temple’s preschool administrator, is excited about Remini, which she hopes can be launched this summer, for the synagogue’s camp; if not, it will be up by the time school starts in the fall.
Until now, the school had been using a regular photo-sharing platform, which was not created as a communications device for preschools and parents, and is not flexible enough to be adapted for that use. Remini is different, she said.
“Using this product, you have the ability to follow a child from when they are in our little sprouts program — when they are babies — all the way through to our kindergarten,” she said. “This will make such a difference to parents. We can document everything.”
Maxine Handelman, who is based in Chicago, is United Synagogue’s early childhood specialist, and she, too, is excited about Remini.
“Early childhood programs have a very big need to communicate with parents,” Ms. Handelman said. “They have a lot going on. Truly, the more a school can make the learning experience visible, the better the education can be, because the parents can better understand their children’s experience.”
Technology has changed the way schools operate, she added. “There used to be a weekly newsletter, which might or might not have pictures, and there’d be a monthly letter from the director. More parents expect a lot more.
“The technology is easy, theoretically at any rate, and parents expect to hear about what’s going on right away, and all the time. At times their expectations are unreasonable — sometimes they expect that they can text their children’s teachers during the day and get an answer right away.
There is a trade-off, of course, but one that’s good for teachers. “The best schools recognize that this level of communication takes time, and they budget it into teachers’ salaries,” Ms. Handelman said. In fact, it takes a great deal of time, particularly when teachers take photos of each child and then send those photos, along with notes, to each of the parents in the class. “That’s part of the deal with using a system like this,” she said. “It’s also about valuing teachers and the experience that children and teachers have.”
And, Ms. Berdy pointed out, “it also shows the parents how cute their children are.”