It may seem counterintuitive for a person who has spent decades in one job to talk about her appreciation for change, but Ann Altus, the director of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El’s Early Childhood Center, is an exception.
Sometimes teachers “will say to me, ‘Can we use this again?’ ” Altus said. “And I say no. I like freshness. I like change. I like innovation. I like to do new things,” said the 75-year-old with all the oomph of a young venture capitalist.
Now Altus appears ready to embrace the biggest sort of change for a career educator: When school lets out this week, she won’t just be saying goodbye for the summer; she is retiring.
“I’ve worked here for 45 years and quite frankly …” She paused during an interview last week in the synagogue library. “I want to leave at the top of my game.”
Altus has the air of a lifelong learner and said she has drawn her energy from staying up to date on the latest studies about educating young children and constantly looking for ways to improve the school.
During a Shabbat service on a Friday morning in late May, Altus sat at the front of the sanctuary, as she has each week, with students’ eyes fixed on her. She had the glow of a parent watching her child take his or her first steps.
Parents and teachers alike praised Altus for the forward-thinking efforts she has spearheaded, like starting a classroom for children with special needs 20 years ago; and for her more ordinary acts, such as remembering the names of every child and parent.
Missy Levin, a mother of triplets, age 3, and a son, age 5, sends all her children to Beth Hillel and said Altus “is the reason we’re here.”
“She’s been here, what — 40 years? She’s still out there at carpool every morning in the sun, the heat and the snow, and I just think there’s something very special about that,” said Levin, a Wynnewood resident.
Altus graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and then became a first-grade teacher at Narberth Elementary School. After marrying her husband, Jerry, she left the job and spent five years at home with their two children, Buddy and Francy. As her children got older, Altus started to contemplate returning to work and saw an advertisement from Beth Hillel looking for a preschool teacher. She started teaching at the Main Line synagogue, and in 1975, became director of the early childhood center.
“It turned out to be a very good choice because early childhood became my absolute passion,” said Altus, who will be succeeded by Judith Mont Scarani, a kindergarten teacher at Perelman Jewish Day School.
Altus listed the Bright Horizons program, for children with special developmental needs and autistic spectrum disorders, as one of her proudest accomplishments. When the program started in 1993, the only option for parents of such children were programs offered by the state’s Intermediate Units, which Altus said “were terrible.” Beth Hillel had two children whom Altus thought could benefit from a special needs program.
The program has grown continuously since, and a fund named after Altus now exists to help parents who can’t afford the Bright Horizons tuition. Altus said one of those first two students just graduated college.
“When he applied to college, he got seven acceptance letters, but if he didn’t have Bright Horizons, he would have been the bad kid in the classroom,” she said. “Here he got the nurturing support and the acceptance that he needed, and he was able to develop and grow.”
Though Altus has not taught for several decades, she is still very much the teacher for both students and faculty.
At the Shabbat service in late May, Altus wore an elegant black dress, but she has also been known to sport a beard or a crown as she acts out the weekly Torah portion or during school holiday gatherings. Several teachers and parents mentioned her takes on Mordechai, Moses and other biblical figures.
“When we have our Purim spiel, she gets up there and she’s dressed in a costume as Mordechai and she’s singing and she’s not embarrassed about her voice or anything. She just loves it,” said Ari Schwartz. She has been at the center for 13 years as a teacher in kindergarten, which was one of the first full-day programs in the area and started by Altus.
In another testament to Altus’ leadership, the school has a low turnover rate among faculty; most teachers have taught there for at least a decade, some more than twice that. Alice Dubin has been at the early childhood center for 33 years and sent both her children to the school; they are now grown but still remember their early years at Beth Hillel, she said.
Her “love of being here has been shared with the staff. I think that’s why I’ve stayed for so long,” Dubin said of Altus. “She always had time to stop and say, ‘How are you, Alice?’ ”
During the Shabbat service, Altus alternated among her roles as storyteller, song leader and dancer, raising her hands up in the air and moving with the children. The students were very respectful, but the director admitted that teaching involves more challenges than it did 20 years ago.
“Families have changed,” said Altus, who was honored with Beth Hillel’s Dor Chadash Award in April.
“The world has changed. It’s very different. I think technology has brought its benefits but also its challenges. And it is our responsibility to make sure that our children are nurtured in strong values, with a strong dedication to Judaism and a commitment to be good people, to be mensches.”