A lifetime of service to early childhood education

Karen Benson-Neil poses with her first preschool class now in their senior year in 2018. Courtesy photo

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While others shudder at the thought of being around three, four and five year olds all day, Karen Benson-Neil embraces it. Now, 33 years after embarking on her early childhood development career, she has been awarded the Director/Teacher Lifetime Achievement Award from the California Council of Parent Participation Nursery Schools (CCPPNS). A lifetime achievement, however, doesn’t come without a lifetime of effort. At 20, Benson-Neil earned her two-year degree in early childhood development from Solano Community College. After that she completed her student teaching Winters Parent Nursery School (WPNS) until her and her mother opened up the Karen-Lynn Preschool in 1990. With the closure of the school in 2001, Benson-Neil took some time off to recharge her batteries. However, when the director position for the WPNS became available in 2003, Benson-Neil jumped at the chance to return to where it all started. “I’ve made this school very community based. Whether it’s the Halloween parade, St. Patrick’s Day parade or singing for the senior center. It’s just important that the kids see their community and become a part of it,” Benson-Neil said about her mindset as WPNS director. “The key is to stay open to all families in the community. People do things differently, live differently and raise their families differently. It’s also having no judgement in how kids learn and understanding what makes them tick.” While the crucible of developing these youngsters is challenging enough, Benson-Neil also talked about the challenge of emphasizing the philosophy of the school to the parents. “It’s all about play-based social learning. Kids learn through play and I want the parents to feel confident in that,” she said. “The academics will come, but they need to have social learning when they can sit down and follow instructions.” It takes compassion and creativity – and the patience of a saint – to do what Benson-Neil has been doing for the past 17 years at WPNS. With a natural-born ability to reach and interact with kids, she contributes her upbringing to how she continues to develop and raise kids with roots embedded in the community. “Everything I’ve done is second nature, it’s how I was raised. You reach out and help your community, it’s what you do. And it’s never felt like work because I learned from the best, all the older ladies in town,” she said. Because of this selfless second-nature, Crystal Apilado and Carla Wroten spearheaded the effort to get Benson-Neil the lifetime achievement award. To do so, 30 plus letters of endorsement written by families, alumni and educational colleagues must be submitted for consideration. Once selected, the award is given out at the state conference along with a journal made out of all the letters of endorsement for the recipient to read. “She has so much energy to work with the kids. She also has creative ways to deal with conflict and personalities. My son’s been there for two years and she’s been a big part of his development and confidence building,” praised WPNS President Dominique Johnson. “She was made for this role and I was happy she got the award. She embodies what it is.” Praise also came from the president of the CCPPNS, Konne Ainsworth, “Early childhood development doesn’t get a lot of attention, but this award is a way to honor these people with their peers. There were 350 us gathered at the conference and only eight to ten lifetime achievement awards given out.” Ainsworth talked about the award and its recipients, “I know Karen’s made a very creative space for parents and teachers to work together. I also got to read all the wonderful letters written about her.” When asked about how she felt about receiving the lifetime achievement award, Benson-Neil was – of course – unsuspecting. “I always thought the teachers that got these awards were so inspiring, so when I got it I was shocked, surprised and honored to be among them,” she said. Winters is blessed to have someone like her in it. After raising her own kids, and developing countless others here, she continues to do what’s been second nature to her and give back to the community – it’s just what you do.]]>

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