By Cecilia Leong
As a young girl, Cindy Acker set up a classroom to tutor neighborhood children in the basement of her parents' Ingleside home in San Francisco. "Children would come and I would make little sentence strips, teach them reading and mathematics, the whole nine yards," Acker recalls.
Her interest in teaching grew stronger when, as a student at Lowell High School, she participated in a program to teach elementary school children to read. That's she knew teaching was for her. She graduated from Lowell, a public, academically oriented school with competitive entry, at age 16.
Acker attended San Francisco State, UC Berkeley (briefly) and then California State University East Bay. She earned degrees in human development, with an emphasis in early childhood education, and later earned a doctorate in education.
Today, at age 53, Acker is the head of The Child Unique, a Montessori school with two locations in Alameda. (In 2010, The Child Unique won a KRON4 Best of the Bay award.) Between them, the schools enroll children from toddler age to first grade.
Were either of your parents educators? No. Actually, my mother had only an eighth grade education, and my father was illiterate. As a child, I didn't know that my father couldn't read. He was always "reading" the newspaper, and I thought for sure he was reading that thing cover to cover. He would check my homework and always send me back to rewrite something or recheck my problems. I thought for sure he was on it and on me. They kept me comfortably ignorant and that was helpful.
I was a score-off-the-charts kind of student in elementary school. Then I got to Lowell High School, and I discovered that education can really kick your butt. I was cream of the crop until high school, where everyone was cream of the crop. Then I learned how to work.
How did you decide to focus on young children? I lived in a neighborhood where a lot of the children kept getting into trouble. Because they didn't have the initial support system, they were frustrated, and so their behavior became problematic because they had difficulty in school. That set them even farther apart from the teachers who could have been their support. I saw this spiral down with so many children in the neighborhood. I thought there just has to be another way. So when my daughter was 2, I decided to start a school. So I just did it.
You just did it? I didn't do any of the things you're supposed to do. I didn't do a business plan initially. I didn't do a demographic survey. My parents taught me I could do anything I wanted to. So I said, I'm going to make myself a school. And I'm going to create something for other children that's going to be exactly what I want for my own children.
I had $35 and a whole lot of energy and excitement. I walked around Alameda and found a house on Bay Street that was for rent. The owner was willing to cut the rent if I got the house up to code. I bartered with a parent who was a carpenter to work on renovations in exchange for child care. And so we opened The Child Unique 27 years ago with 12 children.
The Child Unique is in two locations now? Five years after we opened, the Bay Street house went on the market and I thought it was all over because I couldn't afford to buy it. But a wonderful woman named Denise Roscoe, who was a Realtor, said,"We're going to find a place." We found the Encinal location, which was in a bad state with crumbled floors. The City of Alameda's Economic Development Commission gave us a partial loan and families contributed to the down payment.
At the same time we purchased the Encinal building, this elderly couple approached us about buying their house on Pacific. It was beautiful, but I had just been approved for the Encinal location, and I only had 12 children. I couldn't possibly move into two different locations at once. They insisted, saying, "This house breathes children." So I decided to go for it. It was a total over-the-top thing to do, to go from 12 children in one building to being licensed for 50 in two.
That's a big leap in children, staff and responsibility. Yes! I've discovered it's OK to believe in everything that's possible. It leaves the doors and windows open. It leaves nothing closed—nothing is impossible. And children are like that. They believe until something takes that wish away.
What are your thoughts about the trends toward accelerated formal schooling in early childhood education? I believe that very young children should be in environments that are geared toward their development and their emotional make-up. When children are placed in an environment where teachers—who have been taught approaches that are suited to older children—use them with younger children, it forces them into a box that they don't fit in.
The teachers or the children? Both. The teachers can only do what they can do with the numbers that they have. For children, it forces them into a mold that they aren't ready for. We looked at driving ages—maybe 16 wasn't the right age to drive—and pulled it back. We haven't done that in education. The maturity needs to be commensurate with the setting. I see so many holes in older children that just could have been met at the early childhood level.
When did you moved to Alameda? I moved to Alameda at age 19. I lived near the beach in San Francisco and got tired of the fog. Someone suggested I go across the Bay Bridge and keep going to Walnut Creek where there's sun—so I went. I got very, very lost, came through the Tube into Alameda and said, "I love Walnut Creek!" It took me a few hours to realize I was in Alameda, and by that time I had fallen in love with the tree-lined streets.
What do you do for fun? I go to Julie's and listen to music on Tuesday nights. I love to see art, so I go to Art in the Park. When I'm good, I walk the beach five days a week. That just centers me for the rest of the day. My children got me season tickets for the Altarena—I love, love, love local theater. My partner loves coffee, so we go to Starbucks and High Street Station.