Updated: December 3, 2010 at 12:00 am
When Barbara Swaby got into education she quickly decided that she could have more impact teaching teachers than if she taught children. She was so good at that, in fact, that the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has named an endowed professorship in her honor.
What’s even more telling is that the first endowed professorship in the College of Education has started while Swaby is still teaching, whereas such honors are often posthumous.
“I’m still teaching and I’m not dead,” Swaby said with a laugh.
She has spent 33 years at UCCS preparing elementary school teachers to teach literacy, providing one-on-one tutoring of youth, leading community reading clinics and organizing an ongoing book project that has given thousands of books to low-income children in the Pikes Peak region.
“When we teach children to read, and particularly when we teach children who have little or no probability of upward mobility to read, we don’t just give them a living. We give them a life,” Swaby said.
All her projects are aimed at that goal.
“This is why I do what I do,” said Swaby after observing a teacher working with a student at one of Swaby’s clinics. The girl being tutored was a fifth-grader by age, but she started the free reading clinic at the first-grade reading level. Swaby is dedicated to helping her catch up with her peers.
In the clinics, Swaby’s students — who may be undergraduates, graduates or professionals — work one-on-one with kids, based on their needs. Improvement is guaranteed, and Swaby and her students ensure that the kids involved stay engaged, even if it means picking up the students and taking them home after the sessions.
Swaby said literacy is her life, a statement backed up by the list of awards she has been given over the years and her projects, including the Literacy For All Children Initiative.
In five years, the Literacy For All Children Initiative has distributed almost 100,000 books to more than 9,000 local children. The book project is fueled entirely by donations, from individuals and local businesses.
The project was initially started to help families who had moved here after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005. It has since been expanded to reach as many kids possible who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in local schools.
Swaby said the goal of reaching all of those needy children might not be realized in her lifetime, but she is pleased with what has been accomplished in a relatively short period of time.
“Literacy is the vehicle that carries children through their futures,” she said.
Other things are important, such as what schools do and parental involvement, but those who are illiterate can’t take advantage of other opportunities.
Despite her obvious commitment to local kids, she is first and foremost a teacher of teachers.
“The reason for my academic and professional being is my students,” Swaby said.
Her first degree is in music education, but her masters and doctorate degrees are in reading.
Literacy became her focus once she decided against pursuing a career with music.
“I always felt I would teach and it’s for the impact,” she said. “I could have a greater impact on children if I teach adults.”
In her more than three decades at UCCS, the thing that stands out most to Swaby is how the demand for literacy and the need for learning haven’t changed even if the methodology and kids have changed with time.
She aims to provide her students with the skills to diagnose and improve literacy, especially for those kids who might be considered “unreachable.” The instruction is not tied to a specific curriculum.
“The final thing I say to my students is my responsibility on this earth is to share what has been gifted to me,” Swaby said. “What you have is a trust to you. It does not belong to you. You cannot keep it.”
She expects to retire within the next three years and already has a project. She’s digging into photography and planning a book on Colorado sky images.
Swaby said she has only been taking photos for about year, after a dear friend passed away.
Ann Higgins, who was an avid bird watcher, had become her mom, Swaby said. Being out in nature led to photography, and the resulting art is in honor of Higgins.
Even though the endowment has allowed her to start thinking about when to retire, she plans to stay involved with literacy needs in the community.
“I’ll always do something involved with children, I’ll always help kids and teachers,” she said.
The $500,000 endowed professorship allows investment proceeds to supplement a faculty salary. This funding continues in perpetuity because the principle is not spent.
Barbara Swaby holds the chair now, and the funds will go toward community reading clinics.
“We want to honor and expand her work while she is here,” said University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Chancellor Pam Shockley-Zalabak. “We know that no one will ever replace Barbara Swaby. By naming a professorship after her, we honor her commitment and provide funding to ensure that the person who holds the position is of the highest possible caliber.”
Swaby said the endowment would fund a position so someone could take on her other projects outside the classroom, such as regularly evaluating the literacy skills of hundreds of area kids, when she retires.
Her work is pehenomenol and critical to the community, Shockley-Zalabak said.
Fundraising for the professorship is complete, however efforts continue to support free reading clinics, individual reading evaluations and books for low-income children.
For more information, contact Brian Winkelbauer at 255-5109 or Brian.Winkelbauer@cufund.org.
Contact the writer at 636-0162.