Eleanor Siegl was the founder of The Little School, one of the first pre-schools in Seattle. Her philosophy of education -- let children discover their own talents, as opposed to the traditional “Do as you’re told, speak-when-spoken-to” stance -- reflected her progressive views and her studies at Columbia University in New York City. Eleanor’s social grace and communication skills helped her spread her progressive teaching philosophy and gain the support of influential members of the Seattle community. In 1959, when she founded The Little School (now located in Bellevue), her Board of Directors included Kay (1925-2021) and Stimson Bullitt (1919-2009), Robert (1922-1996) and Dorothy (1925-1961) Block and Katherine and Roy Wensburg, as well as her husband Henry Siegl (1911-1997), concert master of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, who gave the school its name.
Growing Up In Detroit
Eleanor Shapiro was born in Detroit, Michigan, on November 12, 1917, to Russian Jewish immigrants Kolman Shapiro and Tsyril (Sylvia) Woolman (1896-1976). She was raised in a first-generation immigrant family that included her parents, three younger brothers, and her maternal grandmother. Cousins, uncles, and aunts lived in an adjoining house. In her 1977 doctoral dissertation, she wrote that her grandmother, Mascha Woolman, brought “stability and consistency” to a struggling household where observance of kashrut (Jewish dietary laws) and synagogue attendance existed alongside the contradictions of secular activity.
Her father, Kolman Shapiro, left Russia as a teenager. In the United States he worked his way up in the meat-packing industry. Eleanor’s mother, Sylvia Woolman, came to America from Odessa as a young child. She attended elementary school but left in the fourth grade so she could help her family make ends meet. She went to work in an overalls factory. After Kolman and Sylvia met and married in 1915, they opened a kosher butcher shop, a small venture that eventually grew into Kolman Shapiro, Inc., a meat-packing company that assured the Shapiro family financial security.
Eleanor Shapiro attended Detroit public schools from first through 12th grade. From age 7 until graduation, she took piano lessons at the Detroit Conservatory of Music. Her mother took her to operas, concerts, and museums. By the time she was a teen, she was giving piano lessons. She played hockey and swam on the varsity team. The 1930s -- the Depression and the New Deal -- ushered in Eleanor’s teen years. She participated in demonstrations and protests and helped to raise funds for the jobless. She developed a close relationship with Henry Siegl, a musician six years her senior. This relationship gave her parents the impetus to allow Eleanor to leave Detroit in 1935 for Rochester, New York, and the Eastman School of Music, where she studied piano and learned “genteel drawing room behavior” (Siegl, 1977, p. 18).
In 1937, Eleanor Shapiro completed her studies at Eastman and returned to Detroit. She opened a piano studio in her parents’ home and gave lessons. That year, despite the fact that Henry Siegl was a musician with unknown prospects, the couple married. Now the two of them lived in her parents’ home.
Marriage, Family, and the Public Sphere
Foraging for a place beyond the roles of wife and daughter, Eleanor along with two partners -- an Eastman friend and a cousin -- opened a studio outside the Shapiro/Siegl household. No longer conducting business under her parents’ or husband’s purview, here, as Siegl wrote in her doctoral dissertation, she “found a life raft, a small island where I made a difference” (Siegl, 1977, pp. 21-22). During this period, she also took classes in psychology and art at Wayne State University. Attempts to work in the public sphere notwithstanding, Eleanor Siegl settled into life as a musician’s wife. She stopped playing piano, had three children, and became the matriarch of her own household, which came to include Henry’s mother and sister. About her life as a pianist, Eleanor wrote:
“For a time I practiced the piano and took more lessons, but the effort was futile. I didn’t have a strong enough ego to withstand being an amateur in the house of a professional. Years later our children were amused that each time Henry went on tour I would start playing and we’d all have popcorn together. It grew to be one of those cherished in-jokes” (Siegl, 1977, p. 22).
In rearing her children, Eleanor first depended on the work of behaviorist John Watson (1878-1958), but she grew disenchanted with his insistence on such practices as not feeding or comforting babies until designated times. She turned to the views of Viennese psychoanalyst Editha Sterba (1895-1986), who had studied with Anna Freud (1982-1985) and who, now living in Detroit, attended the Sunday night music salons Eleanor and Henry held in their home.
The psychoanalytic education of children with its emphasis on the child as the center of his or her own education became paramount in Eleanor’s thinking. She enrolled her 3-year-old daughter, Mascha, in the Roeper School, founded by George (1911-1992) and Annemarie Roeper (b. 1918), immigrants from Nazi Germany who were brought to Detroit by the Sterbas. Eleanor became a volunteer music teacher in the school. Editha, or Mrs. Dr. Sterba, as she was often called, was psychoanalytic consultant. Eleanor’s interactions with Editha and Roeper School teachers gave her the tools she would later use in administering The Little School.
Mount Vernon, New York
Henry had moved to Manhattan in 1946 to work as a violinist. Eleanor and their three children joined him the following year. They settled into a new home a half-hour from the city where Henry played with the NBC orchestra under the direction of conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957). He was also employed as concertmaster of the New York City Ballet.
Eleanor reveled in her husband’s success, but she was bored as a suburban housewife. She wanted her own career. When the children were all old enough for school, she took a job as a part-time nursery-school teacher; and in 1954 at the age of 37, she enrolled in Columbia University’s Teachers College. In that school she found her way.
Founding The Seattle Little School
In 1957 when Eleanor completed her Bachelor of Science degree and her teaching credential, the family moved to Seattle. Henry had become concertmaster of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, and Eleanor took a job teaching kindergarten at Laurelhurst Elementary School. What she found at Laurelhurst was regimental scheduling, overflowing classrooms, and a general lack of freedom for the student-body.
Eleanor's training at Columbia had been in progressive education. Educators such as John Dewey (1859-1952) informed her thinking and philosophical weltanschauung. Studying under Goodwin Watson (1899-1976) and other Dewey followers, she became the quintessential progressive educator, i.e., one who promotes a child-centered pedagogy where children's impulses reign in a controlled and safe environment. Eleanor Siegl stated her philosophy thus: “Take children out from behind their desks, unfold their hands, open their minds and allow them to learn in their own ways and in their own time” (The Little School website).
The only way to accomplish this was to found an independent alternative private school. Friend Kay Bullitt said: “Why don’t you!” The idea was timely. Siegl's children were in high school and college and the family had made Seattle its home. She took leave of her job and the public school system. With Kay and other friends, she formed a Board of Trustees and began the journey toward creation of the Seattle Little School. It was not an easy undertaking.
Before The Little School took root in the basement of the Unitarian Church on 35th Avenue NE and NE 68th Street in 1959, Siegl and the board had fought hard to purchase a house in a residential neighborhood. (Eleanor’s mother had contributed $15,000 for the purchase.) In so doing, she developed the savvy to interact with the city council, zoning officials, newspapers, angry neighbors, and even angrier threats to stay home and behave like a woman; take care of your own children. Nonetheless, on July 20, 1959, the school was incorporated, and in September of that year, the pre-school opened to 55 children, ages 3, 4, and 5. Eleanor’s daughter, Mascha, joined the team of teachers as a music specialist and she and her brothers Simon and Zev built and sanded wooden boxes and toys.
The Little School
The sixties had its impact on The Little School. When the Congress of Racial Equality created Freedom Schools during the 1966 school boycott, Little School Children attended. From its beginnings, Eleanor and the Board had stressed diversity and integration in the school’s admissions policy; but, except for university professors’ children, the school’s population was, for the most part, middle- to upper-middle-class Caucasian. Two of the teachers, Pat Melgard (b. 1925) and Marjorie Johnson (b. 1920), pushed for a branch of The Little School to open in Seattle’s Central District; and in September 1968, The Little School Central Branch opened for children ages 2 1/2 to 4 years old with Melgard as director. In 1972, it separated from The Little School, incorporated, and became an independent preschool that continues to this day. (It is the Central Branch Preschool located at 3605 S Mount Baker Boulevard.)
Eleanor’s duties as director of The Little School -- hiring and firing, meeting with teachers, parents, students, zoning officials, the Board of Trustees, and established private-school administrators, as well as keeping the books (local CPA Ernest R. Stiefel provided hands-on help) and developing work-study programs for college students -- led her to hire an administrative assistant. During the years 1959-1967, Eleanor’s skill-sets soared; she went from private citizen to public figure, giving lectures and workshops in the community.
In 1967, Eleanor took a leave from The Little School to complete her master’s thesis, "A Study of the Relationship Between Educational Beliefs and Specific Practices in Selected Independent Schools," at the University of Washington. She also taught a class on Child Growth and Development for the school’s Education Department. In 1977, her doctoral thesis, A Very Personal History of The Little School, earned her a Ph.D. from the Union Graduate School in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Popularity and acceptance cleared the way for older children of 9, 10, and 11 to enroll in The Little School. The Unitarian Church had purchased a building across the street for its chapel. Named Holmes Hall, it was located at 37th Avenue NE and NE 68th Street and is now the (much expanded) home of Seattle’s Congregation Beth Shalom. The older children used Holmes Hall for their classrooms; and the Children’s Home Society of Washington two blocks up the street on NE 65th Street allowed them use of their grounds for outdoor play activities.
Moving to Bellevue
In the late 1960s, The Little School received an anonymous gift of $17,500, which was followed by the same amount for the next six years. The school could now afford its own building. It purchased nine-plus acres of land in Bellevue; the groundbreaking ceremony took place on April 2, 1970, with 170 children and city officials helping. (Kay Bullitt, a proponent of public schools, said in an interview that she would have preferred the pre-school to remain in Seattle and the older children to attend public schools).
In 1976, The Little School was accepted as a full member of the Pacific Northwest Association of Independent Schools -- until now it had only had associate status -- and Eleanor became president of the local chapter. The school had had the approval of the Washington State Board of Education since 1962.
In the early 1970s, in order to establish a teacher training program, The Little School affiliated with Pacific Oaks College in California. The Little School drew professors and doctors from the University of Washington to participate in annual conferences. Dr. Irving Berlin, Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics and head of Child Psychiatry at the university’s medical school, became a board member. And, concerned as she was with the interior lives of children, Eleanor hired Dr. Edith Buxbaum (1902-1982) of the Seattle Psychoanalytic Institute to work at The Little School as a consultant.
Eleanor Siegl’s dream of creating a public space for alternative education for young children had come to pass. She worked at The Little School until she became ill with temporal arteritis, a blood-vessel disorder, in 1987.
After retiring from the Little School in 1988, Siegl became Director Emeritus; and in 1989, the Eleanor Siegl Library Learning Center was built in her honor. She continued as a consultant to the school until her death on December 23, 1996, of complications from temporal arteritis. Her husband, Henry, died two weeks later.
Eleanor Siegl was survived by her daughter, Mascha Kushner, sons Simon and Zev Siegl, four grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and The Little School.