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Interview with Jan Rosemergy

Audio (first part)

Molly Dohrmann: This is Molly Dohrmann for the Peabody Oral History Project concerning the merger with Vanderbilt in 1979. Today's date is Wednesday, March 8, 2006, and the interview today in the Peabody Library is with Dr. Jan Rosemergy, Director of Communications for the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Research on Human Development. To begin, please talk about your connection with Peabody and the capacity in which you served at the time of the merger, with an overview of the Vanderbilt-Peabody situation at that time.

Jan Rosemergy: Actually, I came to Nashville and to Peabody after, shortly after, the merger. We moved here in August of '79 for my husband to attend the Vanderbilt Divinity School and I had, up to that point in time, had a career in higher education administration for about 13 years, most recently at the University of Michigan. And so I actually joined the Kennedy Center in November, so a few months after the merger. The Kennedy Center had been founded in 1965 as a part of Peabody College. It is a national center for research on mental retardation and other developmental disabilities and it's really an outgrowth of the leadership that Peabody had already established nationally in this field. The Kennedy Center was really intended to be the major research center within the college, which isn't to say that there weren't other smaller research centers, and I make that point to emphasize that it meant that it brought wonderful resources and opportunities for faculty and staff and students, but at the same time, in any institution, there's always a competition for resources, and so although my acquaintance with the years before the merger and the pros and cons of the center's role within the college, I know that mostly from having been over the archive files all of these years because I've worked at the Kennedy Center now for 27 years and I've been over all of the center's historical records. So, there has always been some degree of tension between the center as a research, major research center within Peabody, but at the same time, you know, really great opportunities and resources.

Dohrmann: What was the impact of the merger on the Kennedy Center?

Rosemergy: The impact of the merger on the Kennedy Center was very favorable. As one of the 12 national centers for research on developmental disabilities, the Kennedy Center had always been unique among those 12 in its emphasis on behavioral and educational issues. But as time went on, and the field moved more steadily to include more medical research, genetic research, it was difficult for the Kennedy Center to compete nationally with other major research universities without being able to bring to the research programs those biomedical components. That had been part of the vision of the center. It's very clear from the founding documents, everything that Nick Hobbs wrote, and these centers were always meant to be interdisciplinary, and that includes the biomedical disciplines. However, although from 1965 on through '79, while the directors of the centers always worked to have that broad, interdisciplinary mix, there were undeniably administrative barriers and so what the merger meant is that it really lowered those administrative barriers and so the center was really able to expand and grow its neuroscience research, basic biomedical research, add pediatric and nursing research, so -- and that was really essential, not only -- in the first place it's essential in order to be able to attack the problem of developmental disabilities, but just from a funding standpoint, it's also essential in terms of being able to compete nationally for continued funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development when you're competing with other major research universities with major medical centers.

Dohrmann: OK. What are some of the lasting contributions and accomplishments of the Kennedy Center?

Rosemergy: Well the first one that we always talk about is the work of Susan Gray. She was both a graduate of Peabody and a faculty member and developmental psychologist; a faculty member in psychology and human development. And one of the innovative things about the center at its founding, as it thought about the problem of mental retardation and developmental delays, as they were -- Nick Hobbs and Sue Gray and Laura Denton and others were interested in the impact of poverty and what was then called socio-cultural mental retardation, that is children that are being raised in very deprived environments, so that by the time they reach school, are already further behind in terms of basic skills and their ability to learn strategies to learn and reason, than are children who are raised in middle income or more affluent circumstances. And so poverty is a factor in the causes of mild mental retardation and learning disabilities. You'll also have in there issues of nutrition, for example, and environmental risk, exposure to lead, and things like that. So she had designed the early training project which was originally a summer enrichment program for parents and pre school-aged children in low-income communities, rural communities here in Tennessee. And what they found from that research is that that early education had a very beneficial affect on children's ability to learn and perform successfully once they entered school. And since they were working with parents, it also meant that parents were able to carry over what they were learning with the target child with their other children, and one of the very exciting findings is that mothers talked to other mothers which meant that what these mothers were learning, they shared with other mothers that they knew and, in fact, we had a diffusion effect within the entire community and even into surrounding communities. And during the Kennedy administration, President Kennedy asked Sergeant Shriver to look at what could be done to address issues of poverty, they visited this project among others, and Sergeant Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver had always credited seeing Susan Gray's early training project as the inspiration for Sergeant Shriver proposing the National Head Start Project. The other thing that is so crucial about Sue Gray's work is that she continued to follow these students from age 3 through 21 and longitudinal work is very difficult, to say nothing of trying to do it with a low-income population, which is a far-more transient population. But she was successful in keeping up with those families and with those students and she was part of a national consortium of similar early-education projects that followed children. There were just a few around the country, and they pooled their findings. What they found was that there were long-term beneficial affects, that while the gains you saw in IQ in the early grades faded out over time, what you found is that better motivation for learning and so children who had been in the early training project or in similar high-quality early intervention programs, early education programs, were more likely to complete high school, were less likely to fail grades, were more likely to be employed or go onto college, and one of the fascinating findings is that for the girls who became pregnant in high school, if they had been in an early education program, they were more likely than girls who were not and got pregnant to go ahead and complete high school and to go on to employment or to higher education. So that is really one very significant accomplishment, and from that, a whole line of research within the center that continues through this day addressing the developmental risks of children being raised in poverty and has continued today in the early language development and in language intervention research of Ann Kaiser and special education just as one example. Another very important area was the work of Nick Hobbs who worked with children with emotional disturbances, again, very high-risk children. And what Nick really brought to the field nationally was the understanding that if you're going to intervene with a child with mental health or behavioral problems, you had to look not just at the child but at all of the systems surrounding the child, what was called an ecological approach. So you're working, not just with the child but with their parents, with their teachers, bringing to bear the resources of the community, that it's a very system-wide kind of approach, and he really brought to national attention the needs, the mental health needs of children and youth and his RE-ED project continues today to be a model that is replicated nationwide. And his work, really continues today, that while one thinks of the Kennedy Center more in terms of our research on mental retardation and other developmental disabilities, from its founding through today there has always been a strong body of research related to mental health and especially to children's mental health that is carried on today in the work, for example, of Judy Garber in psychology and human development, on children's risk for depression and other mental health emotional mood disorders and how that relates to the mental health of parents and, you know, understanding the biological and environmental causes of depression and treatment of depression.

Dohrmann: OK. How has the Kennedy Center changed over the years and the role its plays in the community and in the world?

Rosemergy: The major change really comes, I think, in the way that the entire field of developmental disabilities has expanded. I think its true to the original vision of these centers, that if we're going to attack the problem of understanding the causes of developmental disabilities, preventing them where you can, treating them when you cannot prevent them, that it takes many different disciplines working together. There's been an enormous growth in our knowledge of brain development and in genetics over the last 10 years. And so I think the changes that we see in the center are a reflection of the changes in the field as a whole nationally and internationally, and that the Kennedy Center has been an important contributor to findings in all of these areas. So for example one of the areas of focus in the center today is autism and autism spectrum disorders. And while that was, there were projects early on in the school, what was then the experimental school and later renamed the Susan Gray School, special demonstration classrooms, for example, for young children with autism. Today, we're able to take a much broader perspective on understanding autism, so there is, within the Kennedy Center, there is work on understanding the genetics of autism, what is different in terms of brain development in children with autism, looking at environmental toxins that might be playing some role in the occurrence of autism, and then you have all of the work in pediatrics, Wendy Stone, who is also a psychologist, on being able to diagnose autism earlier. One of our, one of her major accomplishments, is developing an assessment so that children can be reliably diagnosed as early as age two with autism, which means that there are far greater opportunities for early intervention at the youngest ages when children's brains are most flexible and most plastic, and able to change and to reorganize. And, the work that she's doing now, offers the possibility of extending that diagnosis even younger. They are looking at siblings of young children with -- younger siblings of young children with autism -- to look for even earlier reliable markers of autism. Then you have all of the language interventions. We do research on comparative -- on comparing different approaches to early-language intervention, what's most effective with which children on the autism spectrum. We have camps and the social skills camps for children with autism also have research components. So what we're able to do -- what's different now is that we have this whole breadth of interdisciplinary work across any given topic.

Dohrmann: Can you talk about the Susan Gray School and its growth over the years, and change from the experimental school to what it is today?

Rosemergy: Susan Gray, at the point at which the Kennedy Center was founded, and that is part -- we really had, at its founding, a construction grant that built the human development laboratory that was later renamed the Nicholas Hobbs Laboratory on Human Development -- and then the MRL, the Mental Retardation Lab -- what she saw, when they had that construction grant, is that those, that one of those buildings needed to include an onsite school that one way, an important way which you could reduce the traditional lag that some people say is as long as 20 years between learning something from research and putting it into practice would be to have what is typically described as a laboratory school on site where teachers and researchers and children and families would work together so that you generate knowledge more quickly and put it into practice more quickly and you make sure that the, that the educational strategies that you're developing are really feasible, that teachers really can implement them, that families can realistically do these things. So, the first floor of the MRL building then was, from the time it was built through today, dedicated to what was originally called the Experimental School, and then was later named to honor Susan Gray. It's had a vast variety of research projects in it and children of different ages in it over the years, although it was designed primarily for younger children, but even in the early years, it had some young, early elementary grade aged children in this school as well. The particular classrooms and programs shifted over the years, so as there would be opportunities through the Department of Education, or other programs to fund particular kinds of curriculum development project or work with particular populations, the school has had the flexibility to be able to do that, to find students who can benefit from that mix. One of its greatest contributions, and this dates from the earliest -- the building was completed in '68, and so in 1970, when they were still sort of figuring out what could be done in the way of research for such young children, Diane and Bill Bricker started the classroom in the Susan Gray School that included young children, pre-school aged children, with and without disabilities. You have to remember that this was at a time when the whole idea of preschool education for typically developing children wasn't even accepted, you know, the feeling from Jean Piaget was that, you know, children that young weren't ready to be out of the home and in a classroom kind of setting, to say nothing of the truly radical idea of having young children with and without disabilities in the same classroom learning together. What they found with these two, three, four, five-year-olds, is that they could very effectively, with and without disabilities, be in the same classrooms together, that both groups of children benefited from the learning experience, that typically developing children were very important models for the children who had developmental delays and at the same time, those typically developing children grew in terms of their compassion, it did not delay them in anyway or alter their behavior in anyway. And that early work really has influenced the whole field of inclusive preschool education as we know it today. There have been important curricula developed in the Susan Gray School. One was developed by Everett Hill, now deceased, who was a member of the special education faculty whose field was orientation and mobility, and in the school they had a classroom for preschool aged children who were either blind or who had very low vision and developed, working with them, the first preschool orientation and mobility curriculum in the country. And then Carl Haywood's work in terms of the cognitive curriculum for preschool children, a curriculum that's really focused on basic reasoning thinking strategies, and that became the Bright Start curriculum that is now used worldwide. Susan Gray, herself, directed the demonstration and research center for early education which was known as DARCEE (Demonstration and Research Center for Early Education), so really, the DARCEE curriculum was, if not the first, certainly one of the very first preschool curricula developed in the country. So it's really had great influence in terms of early childhood education and early childhood special education. I'll just stop there.

Dohrmann: OK. And do you have any other stories about Peabody and the Kennedy Center and the merger?

Rosemergy: No. Nothing comes to mind immediately.

Dohrmann: Well, thank you very much.


Audio (second part)

Dohrmann: We continue the interview with Dr. Jan Rosemergy.

Rosemergy: I had mentioned at the beginning of this interview that I had come here from the University of Michigan in 1979 and I had had a career in higher education administration and had completed all the course work by that point in time for my PhD. And I found it very difficult to move into higher education administration here in Nashville, that there was a very limited view of the capacities of women. And it seems to me that one of the contributions of Peabody, in terms of the merger, is that Peabody was a more egalitarian environment, and that certainly, not to say that women in Peabody did not struggle to find their place, just as they had to do that nationally, and Susan Gray, herself, is an example of that, but Peabody was certainly far more progressive. And so I think on many of the, what I would regard as issues of equality and opportunity, and moral leadership, involvement with the community, that Peabody through the merger has provided very valuable moral leadership that has contributed to the positive character of Vanderbilt University today.

Dohrmann: Thank you very much.


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Last updated April 9, 2007 by Chris Benda.