Lorraine M. Sullivan: A True Innovator in Early Childhood Education and School Reform (1917-2013)

By Arthur J. Reynolds November 3, 2013

There are great teachers and innovators. Lorraine M. Sullivan, the founder of the Child-Parent Centers in Chicago and school leader of 4 decades, was truly both. Dr. Sullivan passed away on October 3, 2013 at her home in Lake Forest, Illinois at age 96. Although there is much sadness in her loss, celebrating life is what she wanted most and how she lived every day. Let us observe a glimpse of her wondrous years.

Born March 19th, 1917 in Chicago to John F. and Laura C. Sullivan, Lorraine attended O’Keefe Elementary and Parker High Schools. She earned a teaching certificate from Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University) in 1938 after foregoing a scholarship to Northwestern University. She wanted to be a teacher. Her father was a police officer and this surely motivated her interests in public service. Her brother Raphael also had a career in education and was a high school principal.

In 1939 Lorraine began teaching in the Chicago Public Schools at O. T. Bright Elementary School. In the evenings she attended DePaul University and earned three degrees between 1940 and 1943 including an M.A. and M.S.  Her teaching covered a wide range including grades 3 through 8, high school biology at Wells and Englewood High Schools, and special education for children with cognitive impairments at Bright and Throop Elementary Schools.

Lorraine’s desire for further challenge and discovery led her to earn a doctorate in education from Harvard University in 1957. She was one of the first women to do so at the university. Her doctoral thesis was a curriculum and community participation project in Lawrence, Massachusetts. This deepened her interest in strengthening community involvement and children’s language and communication skills.  Lorraine later served on the faculty at DePaul and Chicago State Universities.

Dr. Sullivan’s first Principal’s job was at Bryant Elementary School in 1952, where she served for a decade. She also was Principal at Crane and Bowen High Schools. She was Superintendent for Chicago Public Schools District 8 from 1965 to 1970 and then promoted to Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum for the school system until she retired in 1977. Among the initiatives she developed and led were the parenting program “Teens for Tots”, in-service training for new teachers, and the introduction of Chicago District’s mastery learning curriculum.

Moving full-time to Wisconsin, Lorraine spent a decade as principal of St. Francis de Sales Elementary School in Lake Geneva but kept in contact with Chicago schools as a curriculum consultant. Lorraine showed boundless energy as a teacher, administrator, and leader. She was both engaging and goal-directed.  She lived her later years as fully as those in her professional time. Lorraine was a world traveler well into her 80s. Her talent for taking on challenges was matched by a near superhuman curiosity and analytic power.

Dr. Sullivan was an author and editor of many reading series and texts for Scott Foresman and Company. One of my favorites is her short book “Let Us Not Underestimate the Children” published in 1971, which powerfully describes the influence of the family-school relationship:

“In a success-oriented environment in which young children can see themselves as important, they are ‘turned on’ for learning. Attitudes toward themselves and others, interest in learning, increased activity, conversation, and enthusiasm are all evidences of the change. Parents are increasingly aware of the role of the home in preparing children for school and have renewed hope that education will develop the full potential of their children” (p. 70).

I first met Lorraine in 1997 after discovering she lived only 50 miles away from me in Fontana, Wisconsin. Having recently moved to the Madison area, I soon went to visit. Upon meeting, Lorraine was very engaging and described how much she enjoyed living in the Lake Geneva area. She had recently gone golfing and we discussed her many hobbies such as the theater and boating.

When I began asking about the origin of the Child-Parent Centers (CPC), I expected she would recount a fair amount of the history and circumstances. I quickly realized, however, that she knew everything small and large about those early days in encyclopedic detail as if it occurred yesterday. Yet it had been 30 years since the program began. From neighborhood boundaries to the first principals of the centers, the riots, and of course all of the key elements of the model, she knew it all and deeply. Lorraine also kept the key original reports and documents of the CPC program. She shared them with me as if she knew all along how special the centers were to become.

During the Chicago Riots of 1968 in her district, for example, Lorraine observed that none of the CPCs suffered even a scratch. This was one of her most gratifying moments because it meant the culture of respect for the program was firmly established in the community. Could there be better evidence?

Dr. Sullivan’s leadership and innovations as District 8 Superintendent were phenomenal, especially in retrospect. How did CPCs come about?

In 1966 the General Superintendent of the Chicago Public School District, Benjamin Willis, asked Lorraine to report back to him on the best ways to improve attendance and achievement in her overcrowded District, which covered the North Lawndale and East & West Garfield Park areas of the west side. As one of the poorest areas in Chicago, less than 10% of District 8’s sixth graders were performing at the national average in reading. Lorraine took this assignment from the Superintendent as a central mission and later revealed “this triggered one of the most challenging educational activities of my long career in education.”

Using a grassroots approach that included neighborhood forums and door to door canvassing as well input from teachers, staff, and national experts, Dr. Sullivan recommended by the fall the creation of Child-Parent Education Centers. In May 1967, four CPCs were opened as mobile units and were to be named Cole, Hansberry, Dickens, and Olive CPCs.  They were based on the philosophy that blended intensive language development and parent involvement beginning as early as age 3 within set of comprehensive health and family services in public schools. This was a major paradigm shift. Distinctive features of the original model were that (a) principals ran each center as a school, (b) preschool class sizes were 15 for 48 weeks each year, (c) parent-resource teachers, teacher-nurses, and school-community representatives were core staff, and (d) small classes and teacher aides were continued through the early grades.

As Dr. Sullivan described in the original report to the Board of Education “The Child-Parent Education Centers are designed to reach the child and parent early, develop language skills and self-confidence, and to demonstrate that these children, if given a chance, can meet successfully all the demands of today’s technological, urban society.”

Not only was this philosophy more advanced than the federal Head Start Preschool Program which began in 1965, but ahead of its time in two other key respects made possible by Lorraine.

First, CPC was the first preschool program funded by Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. This occurred only because Lorraine convinced the Chicago Board of Education to use Title I funds to establish the Child-Parent Centers. This made the Chicago Public School District the first to use Title I funds for preschool. Today, annual Title I funding to the nation’s schools is $14 billion with approximately $400 million going to preschool.

Second, the CPC program is the first publicly funded preschool to third grade intervention. As a result of the large learning gains children made in the first year, Dr. Sullivan and the principals continued services in the centers through at least second grade. Today, preschool to third grade programs are a key school reform strategy across the country. CPC’s comprehensive approach has led the way. The field owes Lorraine and her team a large share of the credit for this.

After Head Start, CPC is the oldest federally funded early childhood program. The program expanded to 25 centers by 1978 with some refinements made in the overall structure and financing.

Over the years, the CPCs have proven to be one of the nation’s most effective social programs and are arguably the most effective program ever developed in the Chicago Public Schools. The effects of the program have been widely documented and include greater school readiness and achievement, reduced need for remedial education, lower rates of delinquency and crime as well as child maltreatment, and higher educational attainment. The program and its findings have contributed significantly to the expansion of early education across the country such as the State of Illinois Preschool for All Program in 2006. CPC research showing an economic return of 7 dollars per dollar invested was a primary source of President Obama’s proposal to expand preschool in the 2013 State of the Union Address.

In recognition of her pioneering contributions to early education and school reform, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel observed: “Dr. Sullivan was a visionary educator who played a major role in making Chicago a national leader in early childhood education. Her vision will live on for future generations of Chicago children and families.”

About Dr. Sullivan, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said: “She loved children, she loved Chicago, and she understood how the success of both was connected.”

Today, the entire CPC program from preschool to third grade is being re-established and expanded in Chicago, and in three other Midwest cities (Evanston, Normal, and Saint Paul) through an Investing in Innovation Grant from the U. S. Department of Education.  This year 30 sites are implementing the program serving nearly 5,000 preschool and kindergarten children. Further expansion is being planned.

Dr. Sullivan was very gratified by this expansion and enjoyed the regular updates I gave her on the project. The philosophy of the program today is the same as it was when she established it in partnership with the schools and the community. Since opening, the CPCs have served over 150,000 children.

Lorraine loved teaching, traveling, reading, writing, advising, Bridge, and the arts. She was very active in these pursuits. A good example was when after sending her a draft of a book manuscript on the CPC program, her reply back to me indicated she would provide comments after a forthcoming trip.  “I am preparing for a theater trip to New York with the University of Texas Drama Department leaving Sunday, and returning the 19th.” She was 82 at the time. This was no doubt a common occurrence and defined her bustling lifestyle.

She had innumerable memberships in associations and community groups including the Greater Lawndale Conservation Commission, the Midwest Community Council, Upward Bound, National  Conference of Christians and Jews, and the National Educational Association. Among her many awards for professional and civic contributions were the Model Cities Mayoral Citation, Lawndale Youth Commission Award for Outstanding Contributions to Education, and the Lawndale Urban Progress Center Educational Award.

At Dr. Sullivan’s District 8 benefit event in her honor, the Advisory Council appropriately commended her for working “tirelessly throughout her career for the improvement of education for all young people.” In 1998, the CPC program received a National Title I Distinguished Schools Recognition Award.

How fortunate I was to be her friend, spend time with her, and benefit from the wisdom she so often shared. Her kindness and forthright interpersonal style was endearing and contagious. Lorraine’s family and friends certainly adored her caring and dedicated approach to life and helping others. She is survived by four nieces and nephews, and eight grand nieces and nephews

A poem that was very dear to Lorraine was called Unity by Cleo Victoria Swarat. It was written in the 1960s and was included in the original report and description of the Child-Parent Centers. I distinctly remember her reciting it in a presentation at a Chicago educational conference I attended with her when she was 83. It is as follows:

I dreamed I stood in a studio
And watched two sculptors there;
The clay they used was a young child’s mind
And they fashioned it with care.
One was a teacher; the tools he used
Were books, music and art;
One was a parent, who worked with a guiding hand
And a gentle loving heart.
Day after day the teacher toiled,
With touch that was deft and sure,
While the parent labored by his side
And polished and smoothed it o’er.
And when at last the task was done,
They were proud of the work they had wrought
For the things they had moulded into the child
Could neither be sold nor bought.
And each agreed they would have failed
If he had worked alone.
For behind the teacher stood the school
And behind the parent, the home.

For all of us to remember this vision of education and of partnerships in general would make Lorraine Sullivan very proud.

Note. Mr. Reynolds is Co-Director of the Human Capital Research Collaborative at the University of  Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs and directs the Midwest Child-Parent Center Preschool to Third Grade Expansion Project. The project is funded by an i3 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Contact: ajr@umn.edu or http://humancapitalrc.org.

The Child-Parent Center Program and Study


1917 Born March 19 in Chicago’s South Shore area
Father John was a Chicago Police Officer
1920s Grew up in South Shore and attended O’Keefe Elementary School
1935 Graduated from Parker High School in the Chicago Public Schools
1938 Earned Teaching Certificate, Chicago Teachers College (now Chicago State University)
1939 Began teaching career at O. T. Bright Elementary School
1940-1943 Earned B. A., M. A., and M. S., DePaul University
1940s Teacher at Bright and Throop Elementary; Wells and Englewood High Schools
1952 Principal, Bryant Elementary School
1957 Earned Doctoral Degree, Harvard University (Graduate School of Education)
1961 Principal, Crane High School
1964 Principal, Bowen High School
1965 Superintendent Chicago Public School District 8 (Lawndale & Garfield Park)
1966 CPS General Superintendent Willis asked Dr. Sullivan to address attendance & achievement challenges in District 8
1966 BOE approved Dr. Sullivan’s plan to open 4 Child-Parent Education Centers using Tile I
1967 Cole, Hansberry, Dickens, and Olive CPCs open
1968 Services continue until at least second grade for original cohort
1969 Wheatley and Miller CPCs open
1970 Promoted to Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Chicago Public School District
1971 Published “Let us not underestimate the children” (Scott Foresman)
Co-authored Multi-sensory Reading System for Elementary Grades (Scott Foresman)
1970s CPC expansion to 25 sites
1977 Changes instituted in financing—Title I, PreK & K; State Chapter 1/BOE, grades 1-3
1970s CPC expanded to 25 sites
1977 Retired from CPS
1977 Moved full-time to Fontana, WI near Lake Geneva
1978 Principal, St. Francis de Sales Elementary School in Lake Geneva, WI for a decade
1987 Retired from St. Francis
1997 Met Chicago Longitudinal Study Team
1998-2000 Interviewed for CPC History Project
Donates many original documents to Chicago Longitudinal Study
2000 Volume on CPC program published and includes history documents
2007 Moved to Lake Forest, IL
2011 Advisor to University of Minnesota on i3 Project Application to USDE
2012 Midwest CPC PreK to Grade 3 Expansion Project Begins
31 sites implement program including 17 in Chicago
2013 Died on October 3 at age 96. Vision continues.