UNK College of Education recognizes Samuel Meisels, Nici Johnson for their early childhood advocacy

UNK College of Education Dean Mark Reid, right, is pictured with award recipients Samuel Meisels and Nici Johnson during Friday’s UNK-Community Early Childhood Conference.
UNK College of Education Dean Mark Reid, right, is pictured with award recipients Samuel Meisels and Nici Johnson during Friday’s UNK-Community Early Childhood Conference.

KEARNEY – The University of Nebraska at Kearney College of Education honored two individuals Friday for their impact on early childhood education and outstanding service to Nebraska children and families.

Samuel Meisels, founding executive director of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, received the Dr. LaVonne Plambeck Early Childhood Pioneer Award and Nici Johnson, director of early childhood at Educational Service Unit 13, was recognized with the inaugural Early Childhood Practitioner Award. Both awards were presented during the sixth annual UNK-Community Early Childhood Conference hosted at UNK’s Nebraskan Student Union.


A leading authority on the assessment of young children and early childhood development, Meisels holds the Richard D. Holland Presidential Chair in Early Childhood Development at the Buffett Early Childhood Institute and serves as a professor of child, youth and family studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He also has courtesy appointments as a professor of public health, education and public administration at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, University of Nebraska at Omaha and UNK.

Samuel Meisels
Samuel Meisels

Before coming to Nebraska in 2013, Meisels served for 12 years as president of Erikson Institute in Chicago, one of the country’s premier graduate schools in child development, and had a 21-year research career at the University of Michigan. A former preschool, kindergarten and first grade teacher, Meisels was a faculty member at Tufts University for eight years and director of the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts, as well as a senior advisor in early childhood development for the Developmental Evaluation Clinic of Boston Children’s Hospital.

The author of more than 200 publications, he holds master’s and doctoral degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and an honorary doctor of humane letters from Roosevelt University in Chicago.

Meisels plans to retire at the end of this year after more than five decades of exemplary service to children and families. He delivered Friday’s keynote speech at the Early Childhood Conference, titled “How Children’s Early Years Can Change Their Lives.”

The Early Childhood Pioneer Award was first presented in 2019 to the late LaVonne Kopecky Plambeck, a prominent leader in early childhood and Montessori education who supported and invested in high-quality experiences for young children for decades. The Early Childhood Committee then named the award in her honor.

Meisels was recognized for his inspiring vision to make Nebraska the best place in the nation to be a baby, his efforts to address early childhood workforce needs and his ability to form strong partnerships to benefit young children, families and educators.

“Much like the name LaVonne Plambeck is synonymous with Montessori in Nebraska, Sam Meisels is synonymous with early childhood in Nebraska,” Kathie Sweet, interim director of Montessori teacher education at UNK, said during the award presentation.

“Under Dr. Meisels’ leadership, the Buffett Institute has laid the groundwork for prioritizing the early childhood workforce in Nebraska in order to address caregiver and teacher shortages, training and education for early childhood professionals and stability in the workforce through better compensation,” Sweet added.


The recipient of the Early Childhood Practitioner Award, Johnson has more than 20 years of passionate service as an early childhood professional. She’s the first director of early childhood at ESU 13, where she leads a department of early childhood advocates who support the Panhandle region with a collaborative spirit and love of innovation.

Nici Johnson
Nici Johnson

As a member of the Panhandle Partnership community collaborative, Johnson facilitates the System of Care: Birth to Eight initiative focused on improving the quality of life for families with young children in the 11-county area. She’s also a partner on many statewide groups and advisory committees, including the Buffett Institute’s Evaluation Network Team and First Five Nebraska’s ECE Shared Leadership and Financing Work Group, and she was a member of the Nebraska Early Childhood Workforce Commission.

Johnson has supported early childhood programming and services in various capacities during her time at ESU 13. Her favorite parts of the job include helping people find the “why” of their work, removing the barriers that impede progress and creating a culture in Nebraska, specifically the Panhandle, committed to a long-term investment in early care and education.

She thanked her family and co-workers for their support when accepting the award.

“I’ve been blessed with so many mentors along my journey. ESU 13 is a special place that’s always willing to allow people to grow their knowledge and passions, and I’ve certainly benefited from this,” Johnson said.

“Honestly, I never would have been considered for an award like this without my ESU 13 tribe of early childhood professionals,” she added. “They are the boots on the ground, the ones turning ideas into reality, traveling to wherever the knowledge leads them, allowing me to walk beside them as they blaze trails and change early childhood care and education in the Panhandle of Nebraska for the better.”

Hosted over two days, the UNK-Community Early Childhood Conference provides hands-on learning opportunities and resources for current and future early childhood professionals. About 350 people attended this year’s event. Sessions were presented by UNK faculty and other experts from across the state.

The conference is sponsored by the UNK College of Education, Buffett Early Childhood Institute, Nebraska Early Learning Connection, Nebraska Association for the Education of Young Children, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, Kearney Child Care Association and UNK’s Plambeck Early Childhood Education Center.