Jane Averill, teacher at Ray Elementary School, died peacefully in her Hyde Park home Monday, Dec. 7 after a battle with ovarian cancer. She was 58.
Averill wasn’t born and raised in Hyde Park, but she embodied the neighborhood’s progressive, broad-minded, activist spirit. And it was here that she thrived, found the warm friendships and the sense of purpose she craved, and where she sought to make her mark.
Some people apparently thought she succeeded.
“Jane IS Hyde Park,” said author and historian Rick Perlstein, reflecting the sentiments of many friends and neighbors about the popular former Ray Elementary School teacher.
Averill was raised on the East Coast, born into an old New England family that came to America in 1638. Sarah Averill Wildes, a great aunt generations removed, was among the nineteen women hanged for witchcraft in Salem, Mass., in 1692. The Averill Homestead, a farm established by her ancestor Samuel Averill in Washington, Conn., in 1746, is still in the family today.
Despite her distant Puritan roots, Averill developed an early passion for modern-day social-justice causes. In high school, in White Plains, N.Y., and afterwards in New York City, she worked on campaigns for Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers Union. She spoke proudly of this experience all her life. Later, she moved to California, where she was involved in labor struggles as an auto worker in Fremont and in civil rights campaigns in Oakland.
Averill never liked California, though. Despite the balmy weather, she found it cold, the people distant. The Golden State couldn’t satisfy her longing for close, lasting friendships, so when a friend invited her to Chicago, she jumped at the offer.
Arriving in Hyde Park in late 1981, Averill moved in with her friend at the Algonquin Apartments on East 50th Place and quickly put down roots in the neighborhood. She landed a job as a telephone operator at the University of Chicago switchboard, and within six months met and began dating her future husband, Tom Panelas. Together they embarked on a series of grassroots political struggles—for the election of Harold Washington as mayor, against intervention in Central America and cutbacks in social programs, and later against the 1991 Gulf War.
At 25, after a dizzying array of jobs, from cab driver to assembly-line worker to receptionist, Averill decided it was high time she went to college. She enrolled in the honors college at the University of Illinois, Chicago, working full time as she went to school and graduating Phi Beta Kappa with a degree American history and political science in 1989.
It wasn’t until she had children, however, that she discovered her true calling. Raising her daughter Alli, now 25, and son Michael, now 19, and volunteering as a parent at Ray School in the 1990s aroused in Averill a desire to be with and teach young children. After earning a master’s degree and teaching certification at the Erikson Institute, she joined the Ray faculty as a preschool teacher in 2001.
Averill believed that three- and four-year-olds should learn in a play-based environment with a rich curriculum where they can experience a wide range of stories and experiences and interact freely with each other and their teachers. She believed this because her training and the most respected research into child development found that this is what children of that age need. Averill ran her classroom accordingly, with storybooks, toys, and field trips.
In recent years, however, she felt compelled to stand against a new, and what Averill believed to be destructive, turn in preschool policy driven by politicians and corporate foundations. It involves imposing academic standards in pre-K appropriate to the higher grades and regimenting instruction much more than expert consensus says is wise.
She wasn’t the only one who saw it this way. In the very latest edition of The Atlantic Monthly, Erika Christakis takes on the new top-down preschool model and finds it deeply flawed.
“Today’s young children are working more,” she finds, “but they’re learning less.”
It’s a conclusion Averill would have endorsed wholeheartedly and welcomed seeing it in a major national magazine.
Averill is survived by her husband, Tom Panelas; mother Lucy Averill of New Preston Conn.; and four siblings.
The burial of Averill’s ashes will take place at the family cemetary in Washington, Conn. and a memorial service and a celebration of Averill’s life will be held at Ray Elementary School, 5631 S. Kimbark Ave., on Saturday, Jan. 9, 2016 from 2 p.m. -4:30 p.m.