By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – When the University of Nebraska at Kearney broke ground on its new LaVonne Kopecky Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center in October 2018, Chancellor Doug Kristensen called the $7.8 million project a model for early childhood education that will impact generations of Nebraskans.
“Our students will have the best place to learn, from the best faculty, in the best environment,” he said while celebrating the 19,900-square-foot facility that will serve communities across the state by preparing early childhood educators to enter the workforce and supporting professionals already working in the field.
Kristensen’s excitement is shared by two faculty members who were recently hired to help guide this vision for transformative early childhood education and instruction.
Natalie Danner is the LaVonne Kopecky Plambeck Chair of Montessori Education at UNK and Susan Catapano is the new Cille and Ron Williams Community Chair for Early Childhood Education. Both faculty members joined UNK’s College of Education earlier this month.
“I am thrilled to provide guidance and professional development to the Early Childhood Education Center’s faculty and staff surrounding the implementation of high-fidelity Montessori classrooms,” Danner said. “The opportunity to lead the College of Education’s Montessori teacher education program and support a high-quality lab school is what drew me to UNK. I will work with the Montessori faculty to ensure the vision of LaVonne Plambeck is alive and well in our newest center on campus.”
Danner, an associate professor of teacher education, has more than 10 years of experience leading schools and teaching young children, particularly in Montessori multiage classrooms. She comes to UNK from Western Oregon University, where she taught courses in early childhood and special education.
Danner holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from the University of Arizona; Master of Arts from the Teachers College, Columbia University; Master of Education in early childhood special education from Fordham University; doctorate in early childhood special education from the University of Illinois; and an American Montessori Society/Montessori Accreditation Council for Teacher Education credential.
The endowed chair position is supported by a financial gift from Plambeck that also added two dedicated Montessori classrooms to the Early Childhood Education Center and provides funding for workshops, seminars and other outreach activities for early childhood education providers.
Inspired by the Montessori teaching method, based on a philosophy that puts much of the responsibility and freedom for learning within a child’s control, Plambeck opened Omaha’s first Montessori Educational Center in 1968. She later added seven locations and opened schools in Denver and Fort Worth, Texas. Plambeck launched the Mid-America Montessori Teacher Training Institute to provide professionals with training and certification and has worked extensively on early childhood education with UNK and other institutions.
“This will be the first early childhood Montessori program in the country on a public university campus,” Plambeck said during the groundbreaking for UNK’s Early Childhood Education Center.
The Cille and Ron Williams Community Chair for Early Childhood Education was created by a $1 million gift to the University of Nebraska Foundation from NU alumnus Ron Williams and his wife Cille of Denver. The couple also donated $1 million for an endowment that provides annual support for enhanced activities and programming related to UNK’s early childhood education program.
Catapano, a professor of teacher education at UNK, will provide leadership in early childhood teacher education and child development, as well as initiate programs and research in conjunction with the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska. As a leader in early childhood education in Nebraska, she will serve on statewide committees and initiatives and represent UNK and the Buffett Institute to statewide and national constituents.
“I look forward to supporting early childhood professionals across Nebraska in their work with children and families,” said Catapano, who spent the past 10 years at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “My interests in culturally relevant pedagogy and children’s literature will allow me to support the development and implementation of curriculum for all learners, and I’m excited about the opportunity to develop new leaders for the early childhood field by engaging professionals in Nebraska in meaningful ways to grow the profession.”
Catapano has been an active member of the early childhood field as owner and director of two nationally accredited early learning centers, executive director of an early childhood nonprofit organization, president of a National Association for the Education of Young Children affiliate and a faculty member in early childhood education for more than 25 years. She’s been the principle investigator on more than $4 million in grants, authored or co-authored more than 30 publications and led preservice and in-service students to Belize to work with teachers on early childhood development, literacy and numeracy issues.
Catapano earned her Bachelor of Science in business and economics and secondary teacher education from the University of North Carolina Greensboro; Master of Business Administration in human resource management from Maryville University; doctorate in higher education with an emphasis in adult and early childhood teacher education from Nova Southeastern University; and media specialist license from East Carolina University.
“We are very pleased to have Dr. Catapano join us as the new community chair at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. With her research focus on mentoring new teachers to work with diverse learners and families, she is a great choice for this important position,” said Samuel Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Institute. “We are proud to support the work of Dr. Catapano to enhance the skills and support those working with young children and their families in Nebraska.”
Catapano replaces Kathleen Gallagher, who served as the inaugural Cille and Ron Williams Community Chair for Early Childhood Education from May 2016 to January 2018, when she transitioned to director of research and evaluation at the Buffett Institute.
UNK’s Early Childhood Education Center is scheduled to open this fall at University Village, a 104-acre development just south of U.S. Highway 30 that also includes the Village Flats residence hall.
The facility will provide developmentally appropriate early education for up to 176 children from infant to age 6, including those with special needs, while preparing future educators to enter the workforce by training undergraduate and graduate students in a hands-on setting and promoting interdisciplinary collaborations among UNK’s three academic colleges and the University of Nebraska Medical Center. It features 11 classrooms dedicated to three research-based philosophies for early childhood education – Montessori, project-based and eclectic.
One of three projects replacing the 64-year-old Otto Olsen industrial arts building, the Early Childhood Education Center is funded by state appropriations through LB957 and the financial gift from Plambeck.