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Lois Beckel: a model of high expectations and quality in early ed

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Lois Beckel’s high expectations informed the shape of what we have today: a formal system, with an institutional home in state government, to ensure that new state scholarship dollars for our neediest children are directed at effective programs.

I found out over the holidays that one of my favorite educators passed away. Lois Beckel actually died two years ago, at the age of 60, but for me the loss is fresh.

Why am I compelled to share this with you? Because without Lois, there might never have been a Learning Curve.

I met Lois in the year 2000, when I was looking for care for my older son, who was then a year and a half old. The lead teacher in the Butterfly Room at the downtown YWCA of Minneapolis, she gave me a tour and answered my flood of anxious questions.

When Lois showed me the stack of tiny blue cots that came out at naptime, I was incredulous. What magic did she possess that would get a roomful of hyperkinetic toddlers to sleep on them?

She smiled broadly but spoke softly: “We hold out the expectation that they will.”

Not only did they nap, it turned out they lived up to a long list of high expectations Lois and her colleagues held out.

Many of the families enrolled in the YW’s child-care programs were there thanks to some form of subsidy or scholarship. The program’s high quality drew plenty of “full-fee” families, too. 

Concepts of quality

At the time, my personal definition of quality was a safe facility that would keep my boy engaged and be responsive to my concerns. I had no idea what quality would mean in a larger sense. But Lois did.

She was a licensed teacher who had chosen to work — for less money — with toddlers in part because she loved the developmental phase. Children that age are learning, quite literally, who they are and how they fit into the world. Lois was determined to make sure each and every one of them knew they counted, right from the start.

This wasn’t that long ago, but in terms of the discussion around early ed, as we now shorthand it, it was another era. Back then the public image was of day care, which was something that enabled women to work.

When policymakers thought of it, it was usually as social welfare. Lois was one of a smaller community that knew that the quality of what we now talk about as one stage of the education spectrum really, desperately matters as those kids go on to enter school.

Sharing value and purpose

Lois was a talker. When you dropped off or picked up your child you were treated to a running dialogue about the value and purpose of whatever was going on in the Butterfly Room at that precise moment.

Rhyming? That’s a preliteracy essential. Singing a dorky song with the name of the Butterfly of the Day? Making sure each child had a taste of agency. The non-stop talking? The size of a child’s vocabulary when they enter kindergarten is a strong predictor of academic success years later.

Lois talked to her butterflies, and she talked to their parents who, as novices, needed to hear what the pros knew. And she got heard, since she had a gift for sharing her wealth of knowledge in a way that felt supportive and not shaming.

She quietly suggested to me, for instance, that what my son heard most from me was a steady string of “no’s” and “don’ts.” And she pointed out that many of the impulses I was trying to shut down were related to his desirable traits of smarts and curiosity. I’d get further by reinforcing behavior I did want, she counseled, modeling this strategy all the while.

By the time my oldest entered kindergarten, then, I knew a lot about what kinds of experiences and supports kids should have to be ready for school. But I had precious little personal exposure to what it looked like when a child hadn’t had a Lois in the early years.

What not ready for K looks like

The not-ready-for-K kids in our new classrooms? One couldn’t describe the weather. One, who went home to a rotating cast of foster families, circled the room continuously, fingering a bracelet his late mother made him. A few used adult vocabulary words that hinted at seriously ugly things being modeled outside the school day.

The knowledge that it didn’t have to be this way tripped my injustice switch, and I started writing about inequity in education. Happily, before too long MinnPost came along.

My second child was a butterfly when the state of Minnesota slashed the scholarship program that supported many of his classmates. The early-ed community began the decade-long process of reframing the discussion to one of kindergarten readiness and set about defining quality.

Lois’ classroom was one of the places this research took place. She had no formal place at the policy table, but her high expectations informed the shape of what we have today: a formal system, with an institutional home in state government, to ensure that new state scholarship dollars for our neediest children are directed at effective programs.

Lois died in November 2011, before this policy shift, which I can only imagine would have been a source of tremendous pride to her. She was 60, and pursuing a master’s degree in early childhood development at the University of North Dakota.

The obituary I found after I heard about her passing said that Lois would be missed by her family, and by “more than 1,000” children and adults whom she had taught.

Far be it from me to question a veteran math teacher’s calculation, but I think it has to be at least 1,001 — if not many, many more. 

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