Miriam Lasher: Notes from a Talk at the E-P Alumni Dinner:
In the early 1950’s I was an undergraduate Pomona College in southern California. I was a psychology major interested in children and had completed the only course then offered about children. I looked all over the country for a way to specialize with young children as an undergraduate – Eliot-Pearson and the Merrill-Palmer Institute in Detroit were the most prominent. I applied to E-P and was sent to meet and be interviewed by Abigail Eliot who was at that time at Pacific Oaks Children’s School in Pasadena. Abby had gone to Pacific Oaks after retiring from E-P at age 60, to help establish a training program for nursery school teachers. The interview led to my being accepted to Tufts.
I arrived on the Medford campus along with Hurricane Edna – trees down, no power – no reception committee. E-P was part of the College of Special Studies, not yet a fully-fledged member of the college. To Sawyer House – E-P students were then in three small houses on the edge of campus. 7 or 8 girls, one bathroom, one bathtub – no shower. Our meals were provided in Carmichael Hall – a brand new dorm for freshman men all alone on the western side at the top of the hill, a wasteland. I remember trudging up there in the dark and windy cold to be first in line for 7 a.m. breakfast before long commutes to student teaching. It was a hard life.
Another little vignette of those times: During those two years – I graduated in 1956 – the college ruled that women could wear slacks to Sunday breakfast in the dormitory. It seemed like a really big deal at the time.
I chose E-P because of the heavy dose of practical work with experienced mentors; and the opportunity for specialized coursework. For example, a Tufts course in speech and hearing disorders which for me included a mini-internship in the audiology department at Children’s Hospital;
and an E-P course on the hospitalized child which included intensive visiting in playrooms of Boston Floating Hospital – in the midst of the polio epidemic – with children in wheelchairs lining the walls just to be near something related to play.
The themes for the rest of my career were there – immersion in clinical experiences, learning from very experienced clinicians in specialized settings; blending theory and science with practice.
Lots of student teaching – three full semesters – Harvard Preschool, Theresa Dowd’s kindergarten in Wellesley Hills, and a clinical placement at the Putnam Children’s Center in Roxbury – a unique clinic working with kids with emotional and behavioral problems, and autistic children – that’s a continuing interest of mine.
My student teaching at the Putnam Children’s Center folded into being employed there for six years as a teacher with a caseload of largely autistic children. Child Psychiatry fellows came through and we teachers showed them how to be with children.
In 1961, I went to an NANE/NAEYC conference somewhere in the Midwest and had dinner with Evelyn Pitcher. At the dinner table, she recruited me to come to E-P to teach three-year-olds in the brand new laboratory preschool – the Children’s School – that was then under construction.
By the time I came to work in July, 1962, I had somehow been promoted to Director. When I came to work I was handed the keys to the brand new building – the shell with no furnishings. We ordered everything for rush delivery from a catalog. I think of that austere setting – everything new and traditional and almost identical in three classrooms – and compare it with what I see in the Children’s school now: almost everything custom created to make unique individual environments.
I was director for four years – Rosemary Hutchinson followed me; later Nicki Leodas and then Sam Meisels.
Remember 1965? Legislation in January created summer Head Start programs. The department was funded for a children’s program – we had 10 so-called “welfare children” from the City of Medford. The department also was funded for a Head Start teacher training program. A contingent of faculty flew to La Guardia airport in New York the first week in June, spent five hours in a hotel at the airport; we came back trained to run summer Head Start programs.
At Tufts we were not satisfied with any teacher training materials then available. We flew back to Boston and in two weeks we wrote from scratch a training manual that we could live with. That became Helping Young Children Learn. It went through five editions – I was part of the first three. Sylvia Feinburg was part of all of them.
Early in my fourth year as Director of the Children’s School, Dr. Sam Braun contacted me – he was one of the young child psychiatry fellows who came through in my final year at the Putnam. He was in Washington, D.C. fulfilling his armed services commitment, working at NIMH where he took on the challenge of creating training programs for teachers to work with preschoolers who had emotional and behavioral problems. NIMH had a wad of money – it chose and gave generous three-year grants to four institutions to establish graduate training programs for teachers – it was pioneering stuff.
In 1966, I transitioned into directing that program. The grant included full tuition and generous training stipends for a hand-picked group of graduate students; and all the necessary expenses for the department. I remember then-Provost Leonard Mead advising me to find a couple of international conferences we’d like to go to and build them into the budget. The first thing I did was to hire Sam Braun to teach and advise in the training program.
In the first year we struggled to find appropriate internship placements for our students, and ended up creating our own, using local child guidance clinics in Somerville and Cambridge to provide clients and space. Those students provided consultation to Head Start classrooms as the core of their final summer practicum.
We published a project report, and later, Charles Merrill Publishers – which was already publishing Helping Young Children Learn – took it on.
When the third year ended in 1969, Sam Braun and I moved over to the community. There was a huge infusion of new federal money coming into communities to establish community mental health centers. In Cambridge and Somerville we gave it our early childhood twist. The work we had done at E-P really put us on the map – we were miles ahead of just about anyone in the country in what we provided for kids and parents, and the quality of the training experiences we could create for future professionals.
We continued working with Head Start under the auspices of the Cambridge Guidance Center. At some point George Scarlett joined us as consultant in Cambridge Head Start – when was that?
I continued teaching one course a semester for another ten-plus years in the department – then called “The Exceptional Child,” which gave me an opportunity to pull together my accumulated experience with young children with special needs and attempt to teach the skills adults needed to work with them and their families, and create community settings that made sense.
Through the years a couple of other themes emerged – creating community-based clinical settings where children, families and adults – teachers and clinicians – learn together and document what they’re doing. Thinking about and writing about what we do have always been important to me. It’s a quasi-academic approach with a strong behavioral science twist – serious scientific underpinnings to everything we do; but highly custom fitted to enhance what the individual – child or adult – brings to the situation.
public kindergarten became almost universal in MA in the 1970s
the state established special education programs for children three and up under Chapter 766 in 1976 (?)
the Dept. of Public Health took on responsibility for children under three with special needs and established Early Intervention
In many ways I feel I never left Tufts. In the community clinical programs in Cambridge-Somerville, I hired Tufts grads and we always had graduate students as interns. The person who succeeded me as Director – Frances Rowley – had received her masters in the department.
Through the years I continued to “chair” the Scholarship Committee for the Children’s School – I still do. It’s a nominal role because Debbie LeeKeenan and the school administrator do all the preparation. Coming back annually to the scholarship committee meeting has enabled me to stay connected to the department and the changes taking place.
I continue to be deeply involved in EI in Massachusetts – as a member of the statewide fiscal subcommittee of the DPH EI Interagency Coordinating Council; and as Secretary to the Council. I read the E-P News with great interest – the multifaceted interests of faculty and the broad range of what graduate students do…….I doubt there’s anything like it…..