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Margery Baumgartner, 96; founded The Family School
Ohanian Comment: Let us all stop and think about an educator who thought about how children learn and then founded a school to honor children. Imagine believing children should be heard as well as seen.
By Michael Kinsman
Margery Baumgartner always believed children should be heard as well as seen.
In 1969, she founded The Family School in La Mesa on that principle, hoping that young children would feel free to express their thoughts and creativity in a relaxed class setting.
“We are guided by what children want to learn, and it is not necessary to pour in anything else,” Mrs. Baumgartner said in a 1970 interview with The Evening Tribune. “They teach themselves.”
She ran the small alternative school, which taught children from preschool to second grade, until she retired in 1992.
Mrs. Baumgartner died May 17 at her La Mesa home after a 19-year battle with breast cancer. She was 96.
Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Dec. 6, 1910, Mrs. Baumgartner had her sights set on becoming a teacher early in life. She attended the University of Delaware and spent her junior year studying at the Sorbonne in Paris.
When she returned to the United States, the country was mired in the Great Depression and jobs for new teachers were scarce. She changed career plans and attended the School of Social Work at the University of Pennsylvania.
“The only jobs she could find at the time were in social work, so that is what she did,” said her granddaughter, Eva Nardell.
Mrs. Baumgartner went to work as a psychiatric caseworker in the gritty Manhattan, N.Y., neighborhood of Hell's Kitchen.
When the economy improved, she returned to teaching, first at Charlestown Playhouse, a cooperative preschool and kindergarten in Phoenixville, Pa. A few years later, her first husband died of kidney complications, and she returned to New York.
Her granddaughter said she then enrolled at the Bank College of Education, a small teachers college that experimented with alternative teaching methods for young children.
“The school gave her a stipend, room and board, and let her pursue an education,” Nardell said. “She was always thankful of that.”
Mrs. Baumgartner moved to San Diego in 1952 and worked at the Child Study Laboratory at San Diego State University for 13 years. She later helped start Pacific Horizon School, an alternative school in La Jolla.
In the late 1960s, she decided to open her own school. She was living on a half-acre property on Dexter Drive in La Mesa. The land was subdivided, and a one-room schoolhouse for children ages 3 to 7 was built on part of it.
“She believed in listening to kids,” said Mary Pat Beach of Santa Fe, N.M., whose three children attended The Family School. “She believed that you started with the interests of the child and built on those. She said that the most important contribution she could make was to teach those children to love to learn and that they would educate themselves. That's just what she did.”
The school often operated with a handful of students, up to two dozen at one time. Family members regularly volunteered at the school to help guide the students, using their individual expertise for triggering student involvement.
Mrs. Baumgartner believed that some adults didn't understand the thought process of children. She believed that children used a more roundabout process than adults, but that children were just as successful at reaching conclusions.
“She appreciated that their ideas were fresh and unprejudiced, and loved the spontaneity of how they thought,” said her son, Carl Snyder.
Mrs. Baumgartner chronicled her students' poems and sayings, eventually developing them into two online books on childhood learning that she wrote after her retirement. The books can be found on her Web site at www.earlykids.com.
Mrs. Baumgartner is survived by her husband, Robert Baumgartner; son, Carl Snyder of La Mesa; four grandchildren; and one great-grandchild.
A private memorial service will be held Saturday. Her body will be donated to the University of California San Diego Medical Center.
The family suggests donations to the Bank Street College of Education, 610 W. 112th St., New York, NY 10025-1898.
San Diego Union-Tribune
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