NORTHAMPTON — Amid the piles of brightly colored building blocks, Barbara Black, 66, kneels comfortably among several 4- and 5-year-olds on the floor of a Bridge Street School classroom.
“What’s this one?” she asks each child, her seeing-eye dog, Ms. Pie, wagging its tail patiently at her side. “What are you making?”
For Black, this is what early childhood education is all about.
“It’s really being part of the world that wants to keep letting children play, because that’s how they learn,” said Black, the early childhood coordinator for Northampton Public Schools. “They need to experience the world.”
It is Black’s dedication to those principles — to improving education for young children and their families — that has made her the third annual Daily Hampshire Gazette “Person of the Year.”
Black and the winner of the Gazette’s inaugural Young Community Leader Award, Allison Jenks, will be honored Tuesday, April 25, from 5 to 7 p.m., at the Lord Jeffery Inn in Amherst. Advocating for children
Black, who has spent some 45 years working as an early childhood educator, was chosen by a selection committee made up of United Way of Hampshire County staff and community members. Along with the award comes a $500 prize, half of which will be donated to a charity of Black’s choice.
“Children — especially young children — don’t speak up for themselves and say what they need,” she said sitting at her desk last Friday afternoon. “And so it’s our job as grown-ups to advocate for them.”
For Black, that advocacy work started after she graduated from New York’s Stony Brook University in 1971. Although she studied education and sociology, she channeled a lot of her energy in those years into the movement against the Vietnam War.
“I generally say that I studied demonstrations,” Black said. “I didn’t really expect to be a teacher.”
But she said child care programs began to receive public funding in the early 1970s, so she figured she’d give it a try by working at a child care center helping low-income families in New York, where she was born and raised.
“By the end of the first year, I thought, ‘Oh, I like this. I’m not going anywhere!” she said.
Black started taking graduate courses at night at Bank Street College of Education in Manhattan, and in 1978 she moved to Northampton to take a job as a teacher at the now-defunct Hampshire Community Action Commission.
She soon became the organization’s day care director and stayed in that job until 1996, when she took her current position heading the city’s early childhood program. But administrative work didn’t come easily to her at first.
“The ethic for a long time was that you shouldn’t like being an administrator. The important thing is to do direct service work, and politically that’s what’s important, and to admit that you like being an administrator is kind of weird,” she said.
In her administrative job, however, Black has been able to directly help countless families and children. She supervises the district’s preschool and kindergarten programs, and her office runs drop-in playgroups for small children and organizes a home-visit program for families with toddlers.
And that’s just on the job. During her spare time, the longtime activist has pushed for fair wages for child care workers, expanded services for low-income families and improved the quality and accessibility of public education.Touching families
All that work has touched families across the region, many of whom remember Black from their own experiences in Northampton’s education and child care systems.
Erika Frank met Black 18 years ago, when her own son was 3 and Black was the director of his day care. Now, Frank works side-by-side with Black as an evaluation team leader and early childhood specialist for the school district.
“She is quite extraordinary. She has so much knowledge across Northampton and the state around families and children,” Frank said. “She literally can remember every child she ever taught, had in her day care, all the kids here.”
Black said she often runs into adults she remembers from when they themselves were children in her day care. “It makes me feel sort of complete, because it’s a full circle.”
That honed memory, she said, is helped by the fact that she has been blind for 20 years because of the degenerative eye disease retinitis pigmentosa.
“I like to joke that I have extra room because I’m not junking my filing cabinet up with visual images,” Black said. But far from impacting her work, it has given her extra perspective into what some of her children and families may be going through.
“I know about needing to be accommodated, I know about needing to ask for help,” she said, adding that she has special understanding of parents who, like her, don’t have cars. “I’m pretty empathetic to parents who are juggling the details of life.”
Black is retiring in October, and there’s already a palpable sadness among those in her office.
“There’s going to be an enormous hole,” said colleague Mandy Gerry, a parent educator for the district. “She’s the institutional knowledge.”
Black said even though she’s retiring, she has no intention of stepping away from helping children.
“I’m still going to be doing this kind of work,” she said.
Tickets for the Gazette’s “Person of the Year” event are $29 per person or $26 per person for a table of eight. Tickets are available at https://personoftheyear.eventbrite.com, or contact Laura Dintino at 585-5207 for more information.
Proceeds from the event will benefit the United Way.
Dusty Christensen can be reached at email@example.com