First United Nursery School is saying goodbye to its director, Joan White, after her long tenure at the Oak Park institution. White, who is retiring from the role after 43 years, is a key figure in the local early education community through her work with the Collaboration for Early Childhood Education.
White grew up in southern Ohio and attended the University of Illinois, where she studied child welfare and developed a passion for early childhood education.
“I early on understood the importance of what happens to a child in the first few years of life and how it [impacts] their long-term success. I was really interested in seeing things improve for young children so they could thrive and succeed,” she said.
White began teaching at First United in 1973, and three years later she was offered the director position. Once White took over the administrative role, First United began a rapid process of growth.
“When I started, we had just one morning and one afternoon class. And we grew to have three morning and three afternoon classes for the ages of two to five,” she said. The school also moved from its original location at Calvary Church to its current space at First United.
In the summer of 1978, White started the Young Sprout Day Camp, a six-week morning camp for preschoolers, which still runs today.
White is highly regarded by teachers, family and alumni, many of whom continue to send their children to First United.
Megan Elsener attended First United from 1984-1986, along with her current husband. The Elsener’s three children attended the school, and Megan is pregnant with their fourth child, who is also expected will also attend.
Elsener said White’s commitment to forging a relationship with every student and family is one of the qualities that made White such a successful school leader. According to Elsener, White knew every student’s name, as well as their families, and frequently dropped in on classes to visit with students.
According to White, developing those strong connections with students and their families is an important part of good leadership in an educational setting.
“That’s a really important part of the school, that the whole family feels like community,” White said.
In 2003, White helped found the Collaboration for Early Childhood Education and played a critical role in the organization’s development. White brought her wealth of experience to the Collaboration and helped organize meetings that brought together professionals from various fields, including social work, health, and education, to discuss what makes for effective childhood education.
The Collaboration, which White calls “a tremendous resource for both parents and providers,” has expanded and now serves schools in Oak Park and River Forest and provides support for parents, professional development for teachers and developmental screening for early identification of learning difficulties.
Amy Cardin will be succeeding White at the end of June. Cardin, who started working at First United in 2005 as a teacher before transitioning to an assistant director position, said working with White first as a teacher and then as an administrator gave her a powerful lesson in leadership.
“Her respect for teachers, staff and family really makes an impact. She offered autonomy to the teachers and she supported our interests and independent learning styles. And that autonomy builds a lot of trust and respect,” Cardin said.
Cardin added that White’s respect for teachers and their autonomy is likely responsible for the long tenure of teachers at the school, some of whom have taught there for over 20 years.
Cardin said while it is hard to see her leave, the legacy of White’s leadership will continue.
“She was so instrumental in the beginning, when it was the seed of an idea. She has been a beacon in our community.”