Newly retired director of Calvin Hill Day Care reflects on long career

For 40 years, Carla Horwitz listened to the laughter and conversation of young children as they gathered for play, classroom activities, meals, and more in the converted firehouse that is home to the Calvin Hill Day Care Center.

For 40 years, Carla Horwitz listened to the laughter and conversation of young children as they gathered for play, classroom activities, meals, and more in the converted firehouse that is home to the Calvin Hill Day Care Center.

Today, parents vie for spots for their children at the day care center, but there was a time when “day care” was “practically a dirty word,” recalls Horwitz, who retired as director of the center in December.

“When I began here, first as a teacher in 1975 and then as director a year later, day care had a whiff of the ‘custodial’ around it,” she explains. “There weren’t that many professional women working at the university. Those with means sent their children part-time to nursery school, or their children were taken care of by family members. Predominately, poorer children were in day care. Day care was considered a social service; the idea that day care could be a place of learning was pretty uncommon.”

Back then, Horwitz never envisioned that the center, originally founded by a group of Yale undergraduates in 1970 to serve the children of union employees, would become a model for what “day care” at its best can be. Students from Davenport College founded the Calvin Hill Day Care Center during a time of campus unrest. Members of the employee union Local 35 had gone on strike, and in May 1970 the murder trials of Black Panther Party members were taking place in New Haven. With the support of the university administrators, the students set up child care, soup kitchens, and other services for the throngs of people who came into New Haven for the protests.

One of the students was Kurt Schmoke ’71, former mayor of Baltimore who is now president of the University of Baltimore. He and other undergraduates knew of the union members’ needs for day care. They founded Calvin Hill Day Care Center and named it after a member of the Class of 1969 who was a star football player at Yale and later went on to an NFL career.

“We hoped that the center would have a positive impact on families in the Yale-New Haven community, but through Carla’s leadership the center has become a nationally and internationally respected model for early childhood education,” says Schmoke. “The last time I was at Calvin Hill, Carla and her successor [new executive director Susan Taddei] were giving a tour of the facility to education professionals from the People’s Republic of China. I doubt any of us in 1971 anticipated that the center would have such an impact.”

Those who worked with Horwitz have described her over the years as a “legend” in the field of early childhood education and care, and parents of current or former attendees of Calvin Hill Day Care & Kitty Lustman-Findling Kindergarten (the latter became part of the center in 1983) often describe the center as a place where “magic” happens. (See related story.)

While the sight and sound of bustling children will no longer be a part of Horwitz’s daily life, she will continue to teach undergraduates about early childhood education and child development. With Yale clinician and educator Nancy Close, she co-teaches two courses — “Language, Literacy, and Play” and “Child Development” — as well as her own course, “Theory and Practice of Early Childhood Education.” All are popular among undergraduates.

On a recent December afternoon, amidst the sounds of 5-year-olds happily (sometimes noisily) playing with wooden blocks, Horwitz talked with YaleNews about her long career at Calvin Hill Day Care. The following are some of Horwitz’s reflections.

On the evolution of Calvin Hill Day Care Center & Kitty Lustman-Findling Kindergarten: The center first opened in St. Thomas More Chapel, but the founders were promised the neighborhood firehouse on Highland Street, and the operation moved into the first floor of the converted firehouse in 1972. When I became director in 1976, it was still a small program: There were 24 kids and 4 teachers, along with me. We now have 60 kids in three programs — one for 3-year-olds, one for 4-year olds, and the kindergarten — and we have a professional staff of 17.

I was hired to become a teacher in 1975 because Kitty Lustman [then Davenport College master and director of the Child Study Center’s nursery school] and the rest of the board at Calvin Hill decided the place really needed to be a school, with structure, governance, and a curriculum. I had studied child development in England and had been teaching at the neighboring Foote School for three years.

We opened the kindergarten in 1983 in response to parents’ need for full-time kindergarten, and renovated the second floor of the building for that purpose. For a time, from 1991 to 1996, we had a program for children from 18 months old to young 3-year-olds in our renovated basement. Unfortunately, we began realizing how expensive it is to provide high-quality toddler care. I was sorry to have to end the program, but we needed to be fiscally responsible.

What we did instead was to separate the 3- and 4-year-olds, who had previously been mixed together, as we thought the younger children could really benefit from being in cozier, smaller classrooms.

We are a private, nonprofit day care that gives priority to Yale-affiliated families. About 75% of our children are from Yale families and about 25% are from the New Haven community. We’ve had the children of Yale administrators and faculty, along with the children of postdocs and dining hall workers and locksmiths. Our students are international, and our families are very diverse. We’ve also had the children of children who went here. Grandparents always love that!

No longer a “dirty” word: When I began, families rushed to get here to pick up their children by 3 p.m., because they knew it was a long day for a little child. Now, parents say, “What do you mean you aren’t open till 6 p.m.?”

Work has expanded to fill so many more of our hours, and people are caught in that squeeze. The culture of the workplace has changed. If you want tenure or advancement, you have to put in all this time. So day care is no longer a dirty word; it’s a necessity in today’s world.

Parents as partners, and creating community: We make it clear to our families when they come in that Calvin Hill is a community and that they have responsibility for us just as we have a responsibility to them. We don’t ask our parents to sell candy or wrapping paper during the year, but we do ask parents to do one cleanup during the year, on a weekend, during which they help us fix things, paint, or tend the garden, for example.

When they leave after giving us their help, they usually say “thank you,” because they’ve had the opportunity to meet other parents and to feel a sense of ownership of the place. The kids can feel that too when they are able to say, “My daddy, or my mommy, built that.”

When I first became director, I was told not to ask the parents to do anything because they work and are too busy. But Calvin Hill does outreach for the larger community, including a diaper drive and a book drive for the Clifford Beers Clinic — and our families generously participate in those activities. I can’t remember anybody ever saying no. Some of our parents might say, “I’m too busy to do this right now,” but they help when they are no longer so busy.

Last year, during a celebration of the Chinese New Year, we had parents and grandparents in here making dumplings with the kids. Some said, “I miss my family in China so much, but this really felt like family.”

There is no such thing as a child without his or her family. We often know the child better than anyone but the parents, and so we want to be part of the family constellation in many ways. We have daily contact with our families, and our conversations with our kids might be, “Did Grandma go back to Slovenia?” or “Is Daddy feeling better now?” Many parents and former students say that there is such a sense of community here that once you become a part of it, you don’t escape!

Modern stresses on children: We believe in meeting the developmental needs of children and the needs of their families, but sometimes those things are mutually exclusive. We try to provide a nurturing, stimulating, intellectually challenging, and socially and emotionally supportive environment for the children while meeting the parents’ need to have long hours. That is a reality of day care.

But our society has become much more stressful for families because of these long working hours. Children are used to being here from 8 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., and then they go on to tae kwon do or whatever. There is barely any down time for children anymore; their days are full. Gone are the days when children had time to do nothing. Those days are over.

Teachers and teaching: I learned a long time ago from Lola Nash, the first director of the Edith B. Jackson Child Care Program (the second university-affiliated day care program and the one Horwitz’s children attended) that if you want teachers to take good care of children, you have to take good care of them.

Our teaching here at Calvin Hill is play-based. The young children learn through meaningful play. Our teachers understand child development and how that interfaces with a curriculum. Children also drive the curriculum. So to be a teacher here takes training, knowledge, and a trust in children. We care a lot about training here, and that is one of the reasons that our teachers stay for a long time. We’ve had teachers stay for 20, 30, even 40 years.

All of our teachers have a willingness to continue to be learners.

I established a fellowship program nearly two decades ago to train young people — new college graduates — to be a professionals in a child-related field. They spend a year with us as an assistant teacher, and some have stayed on to join our permanent teaching staff.

The courses that I teach to undergraduates are cross-listed through the Child Study Center, the psychology department, and education studies. They are seminars with about 15 to 20 students in them, and each of them does a practicum at Calvin Hill Day Care or at another facility. We also hire work-study students. There is an important connection between Calvin Hill and the teaching mission of the university.

The students in my courses keep a journal of their observations and learn what it takes to run a really high-quality program where children are intellectually challenged and they are cared for, where there is also parental involvement, and a sliding tuition scale. They see the value of such a program. I tell my students: “Now it’s your turn. You are going to be judges or legislators or teachers or serve on a school board. You are going to have some influence. Make sure you ask for and demand high quality child care not just for your own children, but for everybody’s children. I am counting on them as I look to the future.”

Being accountable: One of the biggest changes I have seen in the education world is that there is a great deal more regulation in recent years and a demand for more accountability.

I am all for accountability, but some of the ways we have to respond and prove what we are doing have become very, very demanding, labor intensive, and bureaucratic.

Calvin Hill was one of the first day care centers to be accredited by the National Association for Education of Young Children when that organization first started in 1987. Accreditation by that professional organization is the gold standard in terms of proving that you are a quality program. But there are now 423 standards you have to achieve, and it requires a lot of documentation. The standards are good, but some are redundant, and some require us to spend a lot of time on paperwork, which takes away from our meaningful work in the classroom.

I remember a time when I said that Yale should require this of its child care programs and knew that we could meet the standards. Now I think, “Be careful what you wish for!”

If we are going to close the achievement gap and we are really going to make children ready for school, then we better have some structure and content and some intellectual expectations for what we are doing. But these agencies or boards really want us to have a script — where we say what book we are going to read on a given day and what questions we are going to ask. But the fact is, our teaching here doesn’t have to be that scripted and prescribed. We can teach with integrity and intellectual content without the curriculum being scripted. Our curriculum is emergent — it comes from the kids, the teachers, the environment, what happens in their families or in the world — not something scripted.

Career highlights: I have had the most extraordinary job. First, I got to spend time with wonderfully curious children every day, which I love. I got to spend time with skilled and passionate adults. I got to mentor and supervise and train young people who are committed to early childhood education. And I have really had a chance to create an institution.

During my time here, I have had a board that has responded to my ideas by saying, “What can we do to help?” Whether starting the kindergarten or doing a renovation, I’ve gotten incredible support from our board, from the Yale alumni founders of the center, from Yale, and from the wider community.

When I came, I got to have my two children here as infants. They spent the first year of their lives here, in my office with a crib. I did all the things that I needed to do, but I also got to be a parent while I was here. The board allowed that, and it was an extraordinary privilege and gift. I’m forever grateful for that.

Future plans: I have a couple of grandchildren. I have two daughters who both live in Boston, and I am looking forward to having more time with them. I’ll also travel with my husband.

I will continue to teach, and I will, of course, continue to be a support at Calvin Hill. The members of the Calvin Hill board used to tell me that I worry too much, and I would say, “That’s what you pay me for, and I am really good at it.” I have full confidence in our new director, Susan Taddei, who has been here for a long time and understands the place and the philosophy of it. I’ll help her in whatever way she needs. I love this place too much to abandon it.

Leaving here is not unlike parenting: There comes at time when you have to let go. It’s my time. I know I am leaving Calvin Hill in the hands of people who will protect it but also allow it to grow.

Carla Horwitz: A teacher, mentor, innovator, and friend to children

In a 2001 publication celebrating the 30th year of Calvin Hall Day Care, Yale School of Architecture professor Alan Plattus describes how an old neighborhood firehouse on Highland Street was “reborn as a magical, indeed unforgettable space for play and learning,” where he relished picking up his young son in the early 1990s.  He described how his few moments in the center daily allowed him to “progress, to a renewed state of childhood” as he drew an imaginary castle or took part in other children’s activities.

Fifteen years later, colleagues of Carla Horwitz shared their thoughts and memories of the longtime executive director of the day care center, who retired in December after 40 years in the post.

Space to be only a parent: Nancy Close, an assistant professor in the Child Study Center and associate director of the Yale Program on Early Childhood Education, says she too is intensely grateful for the experience she was afforded as a parent. Close, an expert on early childhood development, has also been the board president of Calvin Hill Day Care Center & Kitty Lustman-Findling Kindergarten for 28 years.

“When you are a parent of young children, life can feel really vulnerable,” she says. “For one, you are trying to juggle a career and a family and are worried about whether your children are thriving. To be a professional in that field on top of that can make one feel really uncomfortable in a place where your children attend. When I went to Calvin Hill, I just really wanted to be a parent and nothing else. Carla created such a place for me. I didn’t have to be the expert in child development; I could just be a struggling parent who didn’t always get it right. That was a real gift.”

Close is also thankful that Horwitz will continue to co-teach a couple of undergraduate classes with her after her retirement as director of the day care center.

“The fact that her classes are always over-subscribed speaks to the reputation Carla has with students,” says Close. “She is somebody who, in class, is able to make theoretical child development come alive and make sense to the students, and she encourages them to think about how theory can underpin everything they are seeing in the classroom.”

Close credits Horwitz — and the teachers she has chosen and sometimes trained — for developing Calvin Hill Day Care & Kitty Lustman-Findling Kindergarten into a progressive school that prepares its children for life.

“The learning that happens there is just amazing,” Close says. “Not only are the children ready to go on to school, but they know how to be good friends and they now how to work things out if they are not getting along. They know how to be kind, and, for the most part, they know and can express what they are feeling. It’s unusual for any one place to be able to get it right in every area of a child’s development, but I think that happens at Calvin Hill.”

World-class but affordable: Ted Wittenstein, director of international relations and leadership programs for Yale’s Office of International Affairs, is the parent of a kindergarten student at Calvin Hill Day Care Center & Kitty Lustman-Findling Kindergarten, and he also serves on the center’s board.

“As a Calvin Hill parent and board member, I have been tremendously impressed with how Carla has built a world-class day care center over the past four decades, deeply committed to access and affordability. Carla is not only an exceptional administrator, but she is also a pioneer and leader in the field of early childhood education. Through her ties to the Yale Child Study Center and as a lecturer in Yale College, Carla has brought undergraduate and graduate students into the day care classroom, mentoring the next generation of teachers and enriching the lives of the young children. She transformed Calvin Hill into so much more than a day care — it is a permanent fixture of the Yale community that contributes so much to the academic enterprise.”

Gratitude from the center’s namesake: Calvin Hill, the football legend for whom the day care center was named, enjoys telling a story about one of his visits to the center, when a young boy no more than five years old gave him a little tour of the place. As the two became comfortable with each other, the boy asked Hill: “Why did your mom name you after a day care center?”

Hill says that having the center named for him was one of his great honors at Yale. So too, he says, was meeting its longtime director.

She’s one of the people I’m thankful I’ve had the opportunity to know,” comments Hill. “She has been an incredibly steady and wonderful presence at the center. When I thought about her retirement recently, I was reminded of something Nietzsche said, something we often say when talking to young coaches: ‘To do great things is difficult, but to command great things is more difficult.’  I think Carla has done both. She has been a leader and a pioneer in early childhood education. When you talk with anyone who has been connected with Calvin Hill Day Care — either as a student there, an intern, or a teacher — everyone describes great feelings and great memories of the place.

“Even a great plant has to be repotted so it will continue to grow, and that’s how I’m choosing now to think of Carla,” Hill continues. “She’ll continue to teach and be involved with Calvin Hill. I wouldn’t say she is retiring. She is simply repotting.”

A mentee continues the mission: Horwitz’s successor, Susan Taddei, recalls how she first worked at Calvin Hill as a college student in 1988. Since then, she has been affiliated with the center as a teacher, a parent [her three children attended Calvin Hill], the administrative associate since 2008, and, since 2014, assistant director. Horwitz has been her mentor throughout her career, Taddei says.

“I think Carla has created a school that recognizes what’s really important for young children: to love learning, to be a good friend, to be a part of a community — these are the values that the school really supports. Of course, these serve the children well into their future educational experiences. All of the academics and intellectual thought that are infused in appropriate ways into our curriculum are also important, but it is the emphasis on the social and emotional needs of children that really distinguishes this place.

“I absolutely have big shoes to fill,” adds Taddei. “She’s been here for 40 years and is a legend in the early childhood community. She is a tremendous resource and a wonderful advocate for quality child care. Carla has been really motivating me to take on this role for a while now, with just the right amount of scaffolding and great encouragement. I am excited to help it continue to thrive and to continue the good work that Carla has done. Calvin Hill has been a second home to me since I was a teenager, and I feel very protective of it.”

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