Longtime educator, philanthropist, and tireless champion of progressive education Lynn Straus, GSE ’47, died on January 28 at the age of 97.
A true visionary, Straus was an early advocate for including babies and toddlers in the concept of early childhood education and a longstanding supporter of introducing progressive practices into public settings. The Bank Street alumna and former trustee was also a generous patron of equitable, high-quality childhood education programs and a beloved member of the Bank Street community for over six decades.
“Lynn’s role as an educator and advocate for the education of children ages 0-3 has left a lasting impact on the field of progressive education, as well as the Bank Street community. Her wisdom, curiosity, and compassion have shown us all how to embody the College’s credo, and her life’s work was a living example of how can have the ‘courage to work, unafraid and efficiently, in a world of new needs, new problems, and new ideas,’” said Yolanda Ferrell-Brown, Statutory Trustee, Bank Street College of Education. “We are grateful for Lynn’s many contributions to Bank Street and will continue to honor her legacy as we work to improve the education of all students.”
In 1947, Straus graduated from Bank Street’s one-year program for student teachers, where she participated in the College’s model of blending theory with practice through supervised fieldwork at the Bank Street nursery school and other local schools. Through the deeply immersive, hands-on learning process, Straus became an advocate for a child-centered, developmentally appropriate approach to working with babies, toddlers, and preschoolers, as well as a vocal ambassador for the importance of parental and community involvement in early childhood education.
In an autobiographical essay written during her year as a student teacher, Straus spoke of discovering her natural interest in people and the value of relationships in building a more just society. “I find that I am more interested in people than the more objective sciences. I have become a firm believer in democracy and want to see its mechanisms improved. It seems to me that I can make my most effective contributions through teaching or social work. I pride myself on being able to join many groups… and I find much satisfaction in a wide variety of people. Most educational for me have been the people who have come to talk over their problems with me throughout the years. I have learned to listen and to comment tactfully rather than to judge or criticize. I have also learned much more about human nature. Thus, this whole year has made me feel ready and eager to enter the wide, wide world.”
After leaving Bank Street in 1947, Straus became a founder and director of Village Fours, a preschool program that became a model for the national Head Start program and grew into one of the first New York State Experimental Pre-Kindergarten programs. In the 1950s and 60s, she worked with Jack Niemeyer, former President, Bank Street College, and the National Kindergarten Association to establish kindergartens in all of our country’s public schools.
Throughout her career, she held positions at the Jewish Board of Guardians Infant Care Unity and Parents Place Inc., taught five- and six-year-olds at the Fieldston School and the Dalton School in New York City, and served as an instructor and training specialist at Bank Street College. Straus served as a board member of Zero to Three: National Center for Infants, Toddlers, and Families and was a former trustee at Vassar College, where she earned her bachelor’s degree. In 1988, Straus was elected to the Board of Trustees at Bank Street College, a position she held for 28 years.
In 2015, Bank Street honored Straus at its Annual Dinner, a high-profile fundraising event for the College. In her opening remarks, one-time colleague Virginia Casper, former faculty member at Bank Street Graduate School of Education, described Straus as an inspiration for all progressive educators. “Lynn is an astute observer. She studies the world around her and holds on to information until she begins to see a pattern. And then she keeps looking! She personifies a zest for living and lively intellectual curiosity—Lucy Sprague Mitchell must have had Lynn in mind when she added these traits to the credo,” she said.
Known for her inquisitive nature and love of learning, Straus believed education was a tool for realizing a more equitable society. She continued to speak about the inclusion of progressive practices in public settings well into the last decade of her life.
“We still have a long way to go before we can ensure that our children have a good start on their way to optimum development,” Straus said in 2015. “We are way behind other nations in providing necessary services and quality care to our babies and toddlers. In order to better meet the needs of our nation’s children, we must include the youngest in a concept of early childhood education that starts from birth—well before formal school begins. The time is coming when we will have universal pre-kindergarten in public schools.”
“Lynn was a true trailblazer, fearlessly championing progressive ideals and artfully taking the steps necessary to realize meaningful change at scale. She believed quality and equity were foundational in supports for children ages 0-5—both in our city and across the country—and she challenged us all to connect thought to action in our efforts to change the world through education. Through her life’s work, Lynn showed us the importance of sustained, incremental advocacy and policy work in making a real difference in the lives of children, families, and communities,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, GSE ‘00, President, Bank Street College of Education.
After 28 years as a trustee at Bank Street, Straus was named Trustee Emeritus. In 2016, she expanded her commitment to the healthy growth and development of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers by funding the launch of the Straus Center for Young Children & Families at the Bank Street Graduate School of Education through a $5 million gift. Today, the center works to advance policy around early childhood development by conducting and publishing practice-oriented research with a focus on inequities caused by the intersection of racism, poverty, and trauma.
Straus was married for 54 years to Phil Straus. She is survived by her three children, four grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.
“It is only with longevity and patience that progress can be seen and changes you only dream about actually come true,” Straus said, reflecting on her decades-long commitment to high-quality early childhood education for all of our youngest learners.
Those touched by the life of Straus take heart in her legacy and her many contributions to the field of education. She was truly an exemplary member of the Bank Street community and will remain an inspiration for current and future educators.
To learn more about Straus in her own words, read her application to Bank Street College (pdf) and her autobiographical essay (pdf).