Carol Blackwell's fingerprints are all over the Beginning School—literally and figuratively. While it's unlikely that anyone would take a forensic kit and dust the door handles or bulletin boards to confirm where she's been, it's nearly impossible to visit the division she's led at Rowland Hall for 22 years and not sense Carol's temperament and educational philosophy. Lower School Principal Jij de Jesus called both the Beginning School and Carol magical: "She has this way of imparting her vision of what early childhood education should look like, and feel like, and sound like, and it pervades that entire division."
In 1996, when Carol took the helm, the Beginning School was quite different. Classrooms on the Avenues Campus were scattered throughout five separate buildings, which prevented the division from having a cohesive identity. Veteran teachers Kate Nevins and Isabelle Buhler recalled the lack of connection between colleagues, who only saw each other during meetings, and the time Carol spent traveling around campus just to communicate with people. "When I started in 1999," Isabelle said, "all I remember is Carol walking across the quad all day long."
"She would run in the snow, in her boots, to give you a message," Kate added.
Carol has never been one to shy away from a challenge, though. Prior to working at Rowland Hall, she held positions with the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and the Utah State Office of Child Care. As a longtime children's advocate with extensive knowledge of and a strong vision for early childhood education (ECE), Carol was eager to turn her division into a model for others—and she succeeded. During their last accreditation visit, the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) gave Rowland Hall's Beginning School commendations in seven out of 10 categories.
The design and construction of a new campus was a years-long process, which Carol prepared for by enrolling in a summer course on ECE design. Along with other teachers and administrators, she visited area preschools to observe their facilities. "We spent a lot of time as a faculty developing the aesthetic we wanted here," Carol said. They prioritized indoor-outdoor access, a simple color scheme, and big classrooms with low windows so children could see outside. The goal was a place where, "When children walk in, it's all designed for them to feel very intentional about how they are going to learn here," she explained, because in ECE, "the environment is one of the teachers."
Carol credited the collaborative and thorough effort by Brixen & Christopher Architects with making sure the campus turned out as envisioned. After she and teachers pitched ideas, the architects returned with updated plans to seek additional feedback. "They really listened to everybody," Carol recalled. "They asked if they got it right, and kept working with us, back and forth."
Carol is rightly proud of the Beginning School's facilities, in particular because of how they contribute to student learning. She said she could walk into any classroom, any day, and admire the way children are engaged and working to their full capabilities. "It's learning that has a lot of intellectual integrity," Carol said. "You can have little kids be busy pretty easily because you just provide things like glue and glitter and pom pom balls. Or they can be engineering water channels in sand, or trying to figure out how to move balls down ramps."
The move to the McCarthey Campus enhanced teaching and learning for faculty as well, Isabelle and Kate said. They can now easily observe one another's classes—which Carol has always encouraged—and spend much more time together as a faculty than they could on the Avenues Campus. "We created this beautiful building, and the whole purpose of it was connection, and proximity: to be next to each other, to be able to share," Isabelle said. "Carol always said it's about sharing your ideas."
Isabelle described the Beginning School faculty culture under Carol as nurturing, with support during difficult times and celebrations of both personal and professional milestones. Carol established a tradition of starting faculty meetings with compliments and sharing, making sure to highlight each teacher's strengths. She also frequently dropped into classrooms, just to visit, Kate recalled. "And then at the end of the day, before I left, there was a handwritten letter in my mailbox from Carol about everything she saw and observed." Both teachers marveled at Carol's boundless energy, noting that she never seemed to have a bad day—which kept everyone else striving to match her positive attitude.
Carol set high expectations for her faculty, challenging them to continue learning and growing in their profession. "Carol knows what you're capable of, and so she raises the bar," Kate said. Often that meant bringing ECE experts such as Doug Clements to campus to lead professional development workshops for the entire faculty. Carol saw the benefit of having her teachers learn together on site whenever possible, rather than travel individually to conferences.
Of the many traditions Carol will leave behind in the Beginning School when she retires this June, one of the most beloved is tea time with students. For the past two decades, Carol has invited every child—usually in groups of three or four—to join her for a tea party once per year, usually around the occasion of their birthdays. She always had tea with her grandmother as a child, and then enjoyed tea parties with her own children, so hosting them for students was second nature.
"It's just about taking a moment to step out of your day and enjoy each other," Carol said, adding that for new students, it's also an opportunity to get to know the principal. And the tea parties create fond memories for students, many of whom have returned to visit Carol throughout the years and were happy to hear that the tradition was still going strong.
Carol's nurturing, supportive temperament has benefited many more than just her students and faculty. During Jij's first three years as Lower School principal, she served as his mentor, and he said she was always available to him, no matter what was going on in her division. Even when he went to visit his daughter's classroom, not necessarily planning to speak to Carol, she would pull him aside to see how things were going. Jij said, "Her first instinct is always 'How can I help you?'"
Longtime friend and fellow educator Peter Berner-Hays, now head of school at The Little School in Bellevue, Washington, agreed. He and Carol met as staff members years ago at The Beginning Teacher Institute, a since-retired annual workshop hosted by the Northwest Association of Independent Schools. Peter described Carol as an exceptional listener and observer who gave feedback to him and workshop attendees in an authentic, constructive way. "She was quite adept at coming up with new ideas quickly," he said, "and able to collaborate and partner without putting too much of her own ego in it."
Even though Peter never had the chance to see Carol in her principal role, he knew her "depth of care and intuitive sensitivity" extended to the children and adults she worked with at Rowland Hall. Indeed, Carol cited the relationships she's built with families and friends at the school as one of the things she's most grateful for. Whether counseling young parents through a difficult conversation or catching up with a family whose children are now in the Upper School, Carol always sought connections with those around her. "Those are some of the real treasures you take away," Carol said. "The relationships you've built with families that are so eager to get to know you and figure this whole thing out: young children launching from their homes."
Carol has spent a lifetime helping students, parents, teachers, and colleagues reach their potential, and she is especially proud of helping all young children recognize their inherent worth. Just because working in service of others will no longer be a requirement for her and husband Rob Mayer—who is also retiring, after 40 years at the University of Utah—doesn't mean that they have any intention of stopping. While Carol and Rob plan to travel and spend more time with family and friends, they are also committed to giving back to the community, which may include working with refugees or helping children in poverty.
She considers herself fortunate to have been given the resources and opportunity to build a top-notch Beginning School at Rowland Hall. When two students popped into her office to show her their finished drawings of pineapples, Carol beamed. "They're so joyous," she said, looking out toward the classrooms full of children engaged in meaningful learning.
"My gosh, if you did this for all kids, think what the world could be."