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Alice V. Keliher: national champion of children.

Alice V. Keliher was born in Washington, D.C., in 1903. She has been an illustrious champion of children since adolescence. Indeed, her career-long effort to protect children from meaningless, mechanistic experiences, particularly in reading, may go back to age 4. Her favorite word then was "asbestos."

On occasion, her mother took Keliher and her brother to a vaudeville performance at Keith's Theater. The raising of the fire curtain, with large letters spelling "asbestos" printed across it, meant it was time for the show to begin, hence the 4-year-old's delight in the word. Keliher stated later that the word "asbestos" was always associated with her mother, her brother and adventure.

Because she could read, Keliher became a kindergarten dropout. She thought that "school meant book," so on her first day of kindergarten she brought her Mother Goose book. When the teacher discovered Keliher could read, she rushed the 5 1/2-year-old to the 1st-grade teacher and in a shocked tone said, "This child belongs to you. She can read!" The family decided that Keliher should not be pushed and so delayed 1st grade for a year. Maybe this is the reason Keliher became a vigorous fighter for the establishment of kindergartens.

Early Education

Keliher attended elementary school in Washington, D.C., where the family moved when she was 8 years old. She vividly remembers three of her teachers from this time. Her 2nd-grade teacher, Mrs. Hecock, was a believer in the arts. The children danced and dramatized Hans Christian Andersen stories. Keliher loved every day of school. (In 1923, Mrs. Hecock was to become Keliher's first teaching Supervisor.)

Her fifth-semester English teacher was another lively, innovative person. Keliher remembers leading a debating team arguing in favor of independence for the Philippines. She found her way to the Philippine Counsel, had a good briefing and came back to her team with an armload of materials. Her team won independence for the Philippines.

The third exciting teacher taught chemistry. When she found individual students with special ability and interest in chemistry, she gave them extra time and advanced work. Keliher planned to enter Cornell University as a chemistry major and would have received one and a half year's credit, due in large part to the special attention from this teacher. She may have been Keliher's role model in her constant search for effective means to reach and teach the individual student.

A Time for Teaching

Plans for Cornell had to be changed so Keliher attended the two-year Wilson Normal School in Washington. She found the full semester of student teaching most rewarding. Upon graduation (at the top of her class), she was immediately assigned to teach in Washington schools. Her first assignment, in 1923, was to complete the month of June for a teacher who had married.

The following full year Keliher taught a 3rd grade of 52 children. The children were either "high" or "low," because at the time children were promoted each semester. Keliher kept the "highs" in the right side rows and the "lows" on the left side. She tried to give each group much the same materials until her Supervisor, Rose Hardy, said gently, "Alice, did you realize that some of your "lows" may be higher than the "highs" and vice versa?" This is when Keliher really learned about individual differences.

The only real activity Keliher was able to furnish these 52 children was the dancing she had enjoyed years before in 2nd grade. She kept her record player and collection of records in her classroom, and at the close of each day all enjoyed the freedom of movement to music even though the room was full of screwed-down furniture.

Keliher's third year of teaching was in a suburban school where she served as the 1st-grade demonstration teacher for the city of Washington. Students from the Normal School came to study her techniques. Teachers already in service also observed. The spacious room made all kinds of activities possible: a rhythm band with a piano for accompaniment, woodworking, cooking experiments in a small kitchen and a small library of children's books. Parents contributed the books, which were scarce in the 1920s. Such books--poetry, fairy tales and true stories--were vital to Keliher's program of individualized reading. Each child kept a record of his/her reading progress. Several of the children reached 4th-grade reading levels by the end of the year.

When Keliher's fourth and last year of teaching in Washington's elementary schools was due, Hardy felt that Keliher should return to the disadvantaged children she had taught in her first year. Again she was the 1st-grade demonstration teacher for children from broken homes. Keliher helped the custodian remove the rigid rows of desks in her classroom. They found tables that had been stowed away in the basement, many with the one-inch squares of Froebelian days. Again the children had room for dance, dramatics and woodwork.

On clear afternoons Keliher and her 41 children would go to the nearby Franklin Park for active play and sunshine. She bought a set of miniature Patty Smith Hill blocks, brought her own set of tools and canary bird, and helped the custodian make an easel. Again activity was the rule. Individualized reading continued, with each child keeping his/her own record. Laura Zirbes came to visit, took notes of the teaching methods and used them as part of her doctoral dissertation.

Continuing Professional Experiences

While she taught, Keliher took courses at George Washington University. She studied with Zirbes in a course on the teaching of reading. Concerned about the lack of interesting books for 1st-graders, they worked together on two books, Animal Tales and Book of Pets, based largely on frequent visits by Keliher's 1st-grade children to the Washington Zoo.

In 1928, Keliher had her first course with William H. Kilpatrick at Teachers College, Columbia University. Despite the size of the class (235 students), Kilpatrick led the students in discussion, rarely lecturing. He divided students into study groups that would present their thoughts and questions for discussion by the whole group. Keliher believes that her own skill in discussion leadership, known all over the United States, was learned from Kilpatrick, who became her mentor. By the time she was awarded her doctorate in 1930, she had taken every course he taught. For 35 years, they remained friends and he followed her career with great interest.

The late 1920s can be considered the heyday of Teachers College, where Keliher studied with John Dewey. George Counts, Goodwin Watson, Lois Mossman, Harold Rugg and Jean Betzner were members of the faculty at that time. In 1929, she traveled abroad with a group of students led by Mary Reed. They visited children's centers in Belgium, Germany and England, including the famous Margaret Macmillan's nursery. Keliher took moving pictures of these centers, which were widely shown throughout the U.S.

Word of the moving pictures reached Arnold Gesell, who sought an interview with Keliher. Having received her B.A. degree in 1928 and her M.A. in 1929, Keliher was about to complete requirements for her Ph.D. in Education. Gesell needed to hire a staff member who possessed a doctorate and who could also operate a movie camera. Keliher was hired to work with Gesell in a three-year naturalistic study of babies. Her work appeared in the Atlas of Infant Development (Yale University Press, 1934).

Return to the Classroom

After three years of photographing and analyzing some 40 miles of movies, Keliher felt the stirring of chalk dust in her blood. Gesell protested her decision to leave saying she could bring school children to Yale for study. But the position of Supervisor in the West Middle Schools of Hartford, Connecticut, was available and tempting because Laura Hooper, the former Supervisor, had led in the creation of two lovely elementary schools.

West Middle was a beautiful new building with white, not brown, walls and blue trim. A large map of the world covered the entrance floor, where little children solemnly took "trips around the world." Music and art filled many hours and the whole student body dramatized favorite stories. For the Nutcracker Suite, they created large backdrops of China, Russia and other countries and placed them in the comers of the gymnasium. The audience sat in the center of the room and turned to follow the action. Indeed, the children may have created the first "theater in the round."

Eager to work in the schools again, Keliher accepted the half-time West Middle School post for half her salary at Yale. But soon her salary equaled that of Yale when she accepted the halftime post as Director of Parent Education in the Connecticut State Education Department. This post was part of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration program, which established nursery schools for needy children and jobs for teachers, nutritionists, cooks, nurses and others. Parent education was a vital component. Keliher worked with N. Searle Light of the State Department to set up meetings for unemployed parents. Pediatricians, nutritionists, doctors and others volunteered their services to help parents during the dreadful days of the 1930s. Meeting in small groups, parents felt free to air their problems, many of which were ameliorated. Keliher recruited high school students to serve as interpreters for non-English speaking parents.

After several attempts, Hartford finally voted to consolidate its nine school districts. Fred Wish became the over-all Superintendent. Keliher was appointed city-wide Supervisor of the 800 teachers in the nine former districts, a tough assignment since the districts had operated under differing philosophies. Some condoned spanking of laggard children. Others were conservative in methods. Then there was the progressive, delightful Middle School District.

Wish was a conservative, but open-minded, educator. He and his new Supervisor had many discussions about how to achieve "consolidation." For a while he thought all children should have the same books, including spellers. Keliher persuaded him that differences in children's needs made this plan unreasonable.

Gradually money was spent for libraries. She selected interesting books, established a library near her office and invited teachers to select books for their classrooms. Keliher visited as many of the 800 classrooms as she could. She also arranged for interesting speakers, including Gesell, Kilpatrick and Caroline Zachary.

Innovations in Education

During the 1920s and '30s, the Progressive Education Association was a growing force for change in education. Fewer than 100 members strong when it was founded in 1918, it grew to over 2,500 members. In 1932, the Carnegie Foundation and the Rockefeller General Education Board provided money to extend the Association's activities to address the needs of adolescents and secondary education. The program was launched with several study commissions.

Believing that another kind of approach was needed, Lawrence Frank called together a group of specialists in various fields whose findings would be of value to youth: Margaret Mead, anthropologist; Earl Engle, endocrinologist; Mary Fisher (later Essex), psychologist; Robert Lynd, sociologist; James Plant, psychiatrist; Lura Beam, literature specialist and others. Known as "The Hanover Group," they combed their various fields to find materials that would have meaning to adolescents. Then came the task of assembling the significant findings into coordinated materials useful for high school education.

In May 1935, Frank asked Keliher to chair a new Commission on Human Relations that would make these materials available to adolescents. Accepting the challenge, Keliher moved to New York City. For the next five years, she led a group of writers, film-makers and researchers in producing books, radio programs, films and discussion materials, blending the insights from the materials provided by the Hanover group.

Keliher also taught child development classes at New York University. In 1940, NYU gave her a full-time professorship. For the next 25 years, her work at NYU was productive and satisfying. Under Deans George Payne, Ernest Melby and Walter Anderson, she was encouraged to experiment with new types of classes. She became active in the workshop movement, chairing a group interested in the workshop approach.

During World War II, Keliher traveled distances to teach classes of teachers unable to come to NYU. She was instrumental in setting up the Sixth Year Certificate for students needing some type of degree between master's and doctorate. She was a major force in establishing the NYU Film Library with funds secured from the Alfred Sloan Foundation.

Keliher led in the organization of the Human Relations Center drawing from the range of faculty disciplines, much like the Hanover Group. She was usually elected to the Faculty Welfare Committee because of her fearless fighting for faculty rights. Several summers she took her students to meet Eleanor Roosevelt. They lunched on her picnic grounds at Val Till, her beloved home, and heard her speak of her many activities, interests and concerns.

Community Service

Keliher also contributed to community activities. She served as Consultant to the Civilian Defense Office in Washington under New York's Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia. Then, in 1942, Laguardia asked Keliher to take over as volunteer Director of Child and Youth Services for the Greater New York Civilian Defense Office. She continued teaching her classes at NYU, but managed to work some 40 hours a week organizing the Child and Youth Civilian Defense volunteer activities. She also served as Volunteer Secretary of the Mayor's Committee on the Wartime Care of Children.

These combined responsibilities meant that Keliher was active in the development of day care centers for children of working mothers, recruiting and providing the training of volunteers for the varied child and youth agencies. Much work went into coordinating child and youth serving agencies. Meetings with the volunteers were held for morale purposes. Eleanor Roosevelt reported on what she had seen in her visit to England. Many others volunteered--child care professionals, writers and theater stars.

When the war ended, LaGuardia gave Keliher an "Honorable Discharge" that read: "This Certificate is awarded in recognition of devoted and distinguished service to your country and city during World War Il. December, 1945."

In the meantime, Keliher served as part-time Educational Director of Walden School, a well-known progressive school founded by Margaret Naumberg. The university allowed Keliher to give several days a week to this venture because, in a sense, it provided a lab school. She developed a five-year high school offering an integrated core curriculum. The 8th, 9th and 10th grades were junior high, while the 11th and 12th grades were frankly college preparatory. Parents participated in policy-making, escorted the many visitors from all over the world and helped operate the school.

When hundreds of GIs enrolled after the war's end, the university asked Keliher to give up her work at Walden School and create a special program for the veterans. She developed a curriculum she called "a long master's degree," requiring a full academic year plus an additional summer. This degree included a semester of student teaching. Most of this group of GIs possessed B.A.s, ranging from anthropology to zoology. They needed the experiences with children that student teaching provided. Their curriculum included intensive study of child development. Thus, in their "long year" these several hundred eager veterans were "retreaded" to become elementary teachers. After a few years of teaching, many became elementary principals and some found their way into higher administrative posts.

New Challenges

During 1958-59, Keliher took her last sabbatical leave. As a specialist in child and human development, she had always wanted to add more background in psychoanalysis, especially to observe the work of Anna Freud at the Hampstead Child Therapy Clinic in London. Freud kindly invited her to spend the season as a guest of the Clinic. Keliher attended case conferences and staff meetings, observed, took notes and actually worked in the new center for children blind from birth. She also visited London schools to follow up the progress of children who had been treated in the Clinic.

In 1960, another challenge came Keliher's way. New Jersey then had six Teachers Colleges which most high school graduates were entitled to enter. Commissioner Fred Raubinger and Mrs. Katzenbach, Chairman of the State Board of Education, felt that these schools needed to grow into a more mature college stature. They created a new post, "Distinguished Service Professor." These professorships were filled by university professors who had shown creative, imaginative abilities. Keliher, the first one, went to Jersey City State College; Louis Raths and Goodwin Watson went to Newark State and Harold Benjamin to Glassboro.

The roles changed as others followed. Keliher found it necessary to help bring about changes in rigid faculty schedules and to end the prescription of one textbook to a class. She helped end the practice of holding mass examinations in the auditorium for four or five classes at a time and substituted meaningful probes of student learning. She studied the student teacher program to secure master cooperating teachers and held seminars with them. She brought stimulating people to meet with the students, including Roma Gans, Gardner Murphy, Harold Taylor and Father George Ford. Excitement was high when William H. Kilpatrick came for a second celebration of his 90th birthday.

In 1964, a new ruling meant leaving Jersey City State College. The Distinguished Professors were in a high salary bracket. If they stayed, their Social Security would be assimilated into the State Pension. Keliher was convinced that Social Security would increase over the years, as it did, and so she regretfully gave up her post at Jersey City and moved to a Distinguished Professorship at Wheelock College in Boston. There she served with Dean Henry Haskell, who had been her doctoral student at NYU, and Elizabeth Ann Liddle, then Head of Graduate Studies. Keliher taught child development and supervised student teachers. Because she arrived at Wheelock in 1964, the freshman class of that year adopted her. On graduation, four years later, they dedicated their yearbook to her with this inscription:

Never before has there been so much emphasis placed on early childhood education; rarely do we find so dynamic a person as to embody every aspect of this emphasis. As well as knowing her as a lecturer and authoress, we have been fortunate in sharing her enthusiasm and love of children which will be a part of our education and our lives. To Dr. Alice Keliher, a warm, inspirational and beloved educator whom we are proud to have known as a member of our class, we dedicate the WHEEL 1968 ...

Head Start

Keliher's post at Wheelock gave her the opportunity to spend happy weekends at her lovely home in Peterborough, New Hampshire. This did not last long. In April 1965, she received a telegram asking her to be a national consultant to a new program--Head Start. She agreed to serve and after that she was busier than ever.

President Johnson had asked a Task Force to design a program for preschool children of the poverty level, many of whom were having difficulties in the early school grades. The Task Force recommended that an innovative preschool program be launched the summer of 1965 for some 100,000 children. The President responded by saying, "Not enough." So in April and May, all over the U.S., there was a mad scramble to recruit teachers, cooks, doctors, dentists, community aides and other essential personnel for 630,000 children.

In October 1965, President Johnson called the leaders to the Rose Garden at the White House to announce the continuation of Head Start for another year. But it was such a success, especially as a year-round program, that it still continues. From the start, parents have been involved as policy-makers. This may explain why no President since Johnson has dared to end the program.

Training of all personnel to work with these young children of poverty was essential, so Regional Training Officers were appointed. Keliher was one of the first. She served the programs in Massachusetts and later in all of New England. Head Start teachers were brought to Wheelock College for eight-week sessions. One summer the entire staff of Head Start in the Virgin Islands was flown to Wheelock for an exciting trainingprogram, including a demonstration Head Start Center.

In addition to her Head Start responsibilities at Wheelock, Keliher served as consultant and evaluator of Head Start programs across the country, from the Virgin Islands to Guam. Later she was a member of the Task Force headed by Edward Zigler, then Director of the U.S. Office of Child Development, formed to arrange a program of competency certification for day care center workers. A number of childhood organizations joined with the Task Force to create a nationwide program known as the Child Development Associate. To obtain the CDA certificate, child care personnel take courses if needed; but the heart of the program is the observation of workers on the job by leaders carefully chosen for their experience and background in child development and classroom management.

Continuing Commitment

During her years at NYU, Jersey City and Wheelock College, Keliher served many other government programs. She was a member of the Planning Committee of the 1940 White House Conference on Children and Youth. In 1950, she chaired the Conference section on "The Effects of War and Mobilization on Children and Youth." In 1947, she co-chaired, with Mary Fisher, the section on "Home Responsibility" in the U.S. Attorney General's Conference on Prevention and Control of Juvenile Delinquency. She served as section chair for two National Conferences on Citizenship sponsored jointly by NEA and the Attorney General (1949-1951). In 1939, the Attorney General asked her to attend a National Parole Conference which had been requested by President Roosevelt to formulate desirable standards and procedures for the administration of parole.

In addition to these prestigious conferences, Keliher served as Consultant to Head Start, Infant and Parent Child Centers, the Office of Education, the Bureau of the Handicapped and the Bureau of Indian Affairs which, along with Head Start, she still serves.

In June 1969, after 46 years of professional contributions, Keliher retired. Wheelock College granted her its first honorary degree, Doctor of Science in Education. She also holds an honorary Litt.D. from Jersey City State College and L.H.D. from Lesley College, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Keliher taught in a number of summer sessions including Teachers College, Columbia University; Washington State College in Pullman, Washington; and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She led a summer seminar for three combined Texas universities, and taught a Child Development Seminar at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Keliher remembers most happily five hot summers spent leading an experimental teacher-training program at Montevallo College (now a university) in Montevallo, Alabama, from 1934 to 1938. Teachers from many parts of Alabama and Louisiana came for six weeks, and children (1st grade through high school) arrived the second week. For the teacher and trainees, the task of the first week was to prepare the lab school. They rearranged furniture, gathered supplies, selected reading materials, even painted dull blackboards to provide more colorful classrooms. Each day for the six weeks, all gathered in a seminar conducted by Keliher.

When the boys and girls arrived the second week, all was in readiness for a variety of activities. One summer the junior high students, taught by Edna Collins, studied the severe erosion problem in the area. They built dams with logs and others with stone facing. They did the calculations and built a concrete dam to divert the flow of water from the school playground. The high school students, taught by Fred Wale, traveled to Sheffield to learn about the TVA program. They were so impressed with the community center there, that they arranged a demonstration center in Montevallo. Keliher visited it years later and asked how it had been started. The Director smiled and said, "Your high school students did it."

When the programs were in session, the student teachers observed and participated in the morning. Then they gathered around their master teacher and sometimes an invited consultant, among them Laura Zirbes who once spent a week with them. They then had what they jokingly called a "post mortem." In this session, they discussed how the morning had gone and helped plan for the following days. They went on trips, including the overnight journey to TVA, and helped with the dam project.


A dynamic speaker on the needs and rights of children and youth, Keliher was keynote speaker for a number of national organizations. She served on a committee to launch state support of kindergartens in Massachusetts and helped prepare the curriculum guide for kindergartens when Arizona gave state support.

While in New York, Keliher helped Judge Justine Polier create the Citizens' Committee for Children, a watchdog group of citizens who represent the many differing needs of children and youth. Launched in 1945, the committee continues to serve as a powerful instrument for the welfare of New York City's boys and girls.

Keliher has written books, chapters in books, pamphlets and well over 300 articles for a variety of magazines. For four years she served on the Publications Committee of ACEI, the second two-year term as Chair. At 89, Keliher still devotes much of her time to speaking, consulting and volunteer activities.

Alice Keliher's entire professional life can be summarized in one word--commitment.
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Title Annotation:supporter of the kindergarten system
Author:Shipley, Ferne
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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