Ginny Schwalbach: A Lifetime of Changing Little Lives

April 17, 2024

‘The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.’ –Pablo Picasso

‘It takes a big heart to help shape little minds.’–Unknown

Ginny Schwalbach has been the heart and soul of the Early Childhood programs at the Park District of Highland Park for 39 years. It’s been an extraordinary career. One that had a modest start. One that has produced monumental changes along the way. Ginny is retiring this June, and we already know things will never be quite the same in the classrooms and the halls at West Ridge Center. As you can imagine, the stories from a career that spans generations could fill a book. We hope she writes one! For now, we’ll do our best to tell you a bit about how the wonderful Miss Ginny has enriched the lives of thousands of Highland Park families and kids, and touched all of us who have worked with her.

A briefcase and a suit just didn’t suit her.

In 1985, Ginny was a successful businesswoman, with a degree in Finance (and a minor in Child Psychology that would shortly become invaluable), who had worked for the past year as the branch manager of a bank in the suburbs. “I didn’t like one second of it,” she said, matter of factly. And now, she and her husband had a 1-year-old son who she wanted to spend time with more than almost anything. “I opened the Highland Park Review one day and saw an ad in big, bold letters: ‘Bring Your Child, Come to Work With Us’.” That might be the best ad the Park District has ever run. She “answered the ad” (what a lovely, quaint phrase), and was hired as a babysitter. “My son came to work with me every day, we had friends, we played. I got paid to do that. It was perfect!” When her daughter was born, she also came to work with Ginny every day. “I stayed with the program, and she was able to grow at the Park District.”

When her son was 4 or 5, Ginny said to her boss, “My son loves the sports and athletics programs here, but he would really love science and dinosaurs and volcanoes and explosions, too.” Don Kappal said simply: “Do a write-up for the brochure.” She remembers, “I wasn’t really thinking it would be me who would teach the class!” Happily, for her and for us, the proposal was accepted. “The concept of something academic just took off immediately,” she said, and it’s been going strong ever since. Many of you got to know her when you were a kid in that class. Curiosity Club was the first one she developed. Somewhere along the way she became Miss Ginny. And we became a better Park District.

Everything Grows and Grows

One class expanded to other classes, with more wonderful teachers. “It all came together. My kids could be with me, I was working in the town I grew up in, and I loved what I was doing.”

Miss Ginny taught 2-year, 3-year, and 4-year-old classes – all individual classes – but the bulk of what she did was Kindergarten. Back then, the Highland Park schools only offered half-day Kindergarten, so kids came to the park district’s enrichment programs in the morning, went to Kindergarten in the afternoon, and vice versa. The most popular class was Curiosity Club, where

every week had a different Science theme. Then she developed Number Nonsense, another academically based class, but with a Math theme. “The kids earned Crazy Cash during class, and could then go ‘shopping’ in the little toy store we had.” These days, her students don’t know as much about cash and cash registers. They do know about Gift Cards! “It’s their thing, now.”

In 2016, Highland Park schools finally offered full-day Kindergarten, which was a game-changer for the park district. Half-day Kindergarten was no longer the answer for parents, and Ginny knew she had to reinvent the program. “We had great teachers who were well established in their 2, 3, and 4-year-old classes. I certainly didn’t want to change that structure or infringe on what they all were doing so well.” There was, however, an important area the district was not fully addressing. Ginny moved into after-school programming and created another sensational class: Invention Convention. Amanda Geoffrion, the district’s Recreation Supervisor-Early Childhood Enrichment, wrote recently, “Creating, developing, and nurturing new programs to meet the needs of our community and serve our youngest population is work that has fueled Ginny and continues to energize her to this day.” That’s certainly true. It’s a very special person who shows up to work every day for 39 years with the same vigor and ambition as when they started.

Things Change. Things Stay the Same.

We asked Miss Ginny about the changes in education that she’s seen and been part of for almost 4 decades. Technology? “The age groups we teach are not really involved with technology as much as you might think. They are not on screens, and parents are happy about that.” What still works? “Getting down on the floor and interacting with students, and reading books face-to-face is still the best. It makes a huge difference.” Favorite teaching tools? “Building blocks! Kids still love them. And we brought out Legos for the first time during President’s Week. Boys and girls sat together at tables and worked on creating their own flags.” You could tell how excited they were just by listening to her tell the story. We love that about Miss Ginny. Everyone does. Of course as teachers, Ginny and her colleagues use technology to prepare lessons. It’s one of the positive changes tech has made in the profession And now, in addition to sending home a paper each day with an explanation of what the students did in class, every afternoon the teachers send parents a set of pictures of what happened during the day. “It’s wonderful. Kids and parents look forward to it, and we use that as a springboard for conversations at home, because that’s where so much education takes place.”

The fall of 2019 brought another significant change to the education program at the park district, when the district’s Recreation Department opened ParkSchool. It was designed to be a preschool program and all of the teachers focused on their age groups. There were classes for ages 2, 2 turning 3, and 3 turning 4. Miss Ginny took on the 4 turning 5 group. Kids who would be entering Kindergarten the next fall. At ParkSchool, the curriculum is designed so that all ages do the same theme every week, with different class projects that are appropriate for each age group. The teachers all work together instead of doing separate weekly themes. The concept was, and has been, a tremendous success.

And Then — January 2020.

Individual classes had been going well. ParkSchool was running smoothly. While the kids are very young, the teachers have been there for a long time and are all seasoned pros. Which made a world of difference in 2020 and 2021 during the height of the pandemic. When everything changed outside, ParkSchool kept going. Parents appreciated it. Kids benefitted greatly by being with their friends and the teachers they trusted. Ginny explained, “Teachers understand that when children are with us during the school day, we are the most important person in their world because we’re taking care of these human beings. We know that we’re part of the family conversation at the dinner table. We’re mindful of that every day. It informs how we talk to the students and how we interact with them.” Julie Nichols, the district’s Recreation Program Manager, has an interesting, inciteful take on the importance of teachers: “The preschool parents we have today have never parented when they were not in a crisis. They’ve lived from one crisis to the next.” It’s true. They don’t know what it’s like to be a parent when the world was beautiful, and a simpler place. Ginny added, “It makes me a little sad, but also makes me more aware of just how important it is that parents trust us.” We know they do.

Learning to create that trust goes back to a much earlier program that Ginny created called Me and My Pals, for 2-year-olds coming to a class without their parent. It was a big transition for the children—and their parents. “It was like baptism by fire. I learned about separation anxiety, and how much I wasn’t just an instructor for the children, but for the family as well.” For many parents, this was the first time they were dropping their children off. Once she had the trust of the parents the kids followed suit, “because the kids would think mom & dad are bringing me here, so they must feel good about it.” Remember that minor in Child Psychology? So much more important than a briefcase. During that time, kids could only come for one class a week, and there were years when Ginny had as many as 180 families enrolled. She taught up to 12 classes each week, and while it was a lot of work, “I just loved it!” Decades later, thousands of kids and families remember how much they loved it, too.

Talking about this final academic school year, Ginny says “I’m excited to come to work every day. While I’m driving in I’m thinking ‘I can’t wait to do this project, and to try this with the kids.” She’s a bit surprised by that, but if you’re one of the lucky ones who has found their true calling, you know how it feels. “I get to come to work at a park every day. There are deer walking around!” You can hear the smile in her voice. Then she added, “The foundation of this building is the people who work here. I love these people, and I’m proud to say I’m part of this organization.”

Miss Ginny, you’re the cornerstone of this building. This organization. Our education programs. We stand on your shoulders, and we know we’re better because of you. Amanda wrote a lovely toast; “All of us here at the park district, and everyone in the Highland Park community wishes Ginny a well-deserved retirement filled with joy, more time with her growing grandchildren and family, and new adventures!”

All together now: When I say Mighty you say: Oaks! Mighty: Oaks!, Mighty: Oaks! A big strong tree, Mighty like ME!