Story and photos by Jo Mathis
AAPS District News Editor
Scott Westerman says he’s gone through several stages since learning the Ann Arbor Preschool and Family Center would be renamed the “Ann Arbor Public Schools Dr. W. Scott Westerman, Jr. Preschool and Family Center” following the Ann Arbor School Board’s unanimous vote Wednesday.
“Initially it was disbelief and denial—literally,” said Westerman, who served as AAPS superintendent during the turbulent years of 1967 to 1971.
“But when it became clear to me that it was going to happen, I asked to meet with the staff, and that was a beautiful experience … There is a profound effect this program has on kids and just to be affiliated with it gives me great pride.”
The more he learned about the fantastic things the preschool and family center does for local children and their families, Westerman said he entered the acceptance stage.
And now Westerman said he’s in the final stage of the process, which is figuring out how to enhance the cause of early education in Ann Arbor Public Schools.
“I want to know what I can do on an ongoing basis that will make me a presence beyond the name on the wall,” says Westerman, who turns 90 on July 10. “That’s what I’m looking for. It’s not that I think I’ll be forgotten—because that name’s going to be there all the time!”
Westerman was honored at a reception Wednesday night prior to an Ann Arbor School Board meeting at which trustees enthusiastically voted to rename the building in his honor.
Superintendent Jeanice Swift called Westerman “an icon of excellence in education in Ann Arbor.”
“He has had a long and distinguished career supporting teaching and learning and continues to be sought after to serve on various committees during his retirement,” she said. “I am so proud to be a part of recognizing his work and commitment to public education by naming our wonderful preschool in his honor.”
The name change affirms Westerman’s lifelong ideals of caring, inclusion, respect, emphasis on education, excellence and passion, says his longtime friend, former trustee Glenn Nelson.
“We really change lives in that building,” said Nelson, referring to the school attended by about 400 preschoolers, most of whom have developmental disabilities, are at-risk, or come from low-income families. “And Scott’s name on the preschool is so appropriate because of his longtime interest and work in preschool education.”
Located at 2775 Boardwalk, the preschool and family center opened in 2006. Prior to that, the building was part of the Balas administration complex.
On Tuesday afternoon, Westerman toured the preschool and family center with Principal Michelle Pogliano, who says she considers it a privilege to be part of the process honoring Westerman for his lifelong dedication to education.
“Anyone who knows, or has heard of, Dr. Westerman knows of his exemplary leadership, dedication, and commitment to serving education, and the special passion he had for serving those who are under served,” said Pogliano. “As a staff, we examined the values that he holds so high and saw an undeniable alignment to what we value as a preschool community. Carrying the name Dr. Scott Westerman, Jr. will only raise our commitment to children and families and carry on the legacy of an exceptional leader.”
Westerman grew up in Ohio and Ann Arbor, the son of a Methodist minister and Mack Elementary teacher. He enlisted in the Army and served in World War II as a staff sergeant responsible for two machine gun squads in Germany and as a company first sergeant in the Philippines.
He and Marcy, whom he’d met at Ohio Wesleyan in 1943, were married in 1948, immediately prior to their move to Ann Arbor.
Between 1948 and 1960, he taught at the University School and the University of Michigan School of Education, distinguishing himself as a superb classroom teacher, said Nelson.
Westerman also served as president of the Board of the Perry Nursery School in the mid-1950s.
AAPS years during turbulent times
From 1960 through 1971, Westerman held the following positions in the AAPS: social studies coordinator (1960-1963), assistant superintendent of instruction (1963-1967), and superintendent (1967-1971).
Asked to name the highlight of his years with AAPS, Westerman didn’t hesitate.
“Most satisfying for me was to observe the progress we were able to make in the realm of racism,” he said.
A particularly memorable event, he said, was back in 1968 when Pioneer High School Principal Nick Schreiber initiated a survey of black students to assess issues related to race after a U-M study showed practices in schools often detracted from the performance of lower income and minority students.
Schreiber then called Westerman and asked him to close the school for a day so that all high school teachers would attend a forum where black students would speak to faculty and to Westerman.
He also led a major, controversial effort to increase the racial-ethnic diversity of AAPS employees, using black teachers as recruiters. And he introduced textbooks that better reflected the diversity of the student body.
“I’ve been reflecting on this recently, with all the continued concerns about racist behavior,” he said. “But we were able to make some significant strides in that realm.”
Continuing to serve post-retirement from EMU
After leaving AAPS, Westerman went on to serve in several capacities at Eastern Michigan University, finally retiring in 1991 after 11 years as the dean of the College of Education.
When the EMU Foundation asked Scott how he would like to be honored, he requested establishment of the Westerman Diversity Scholarship. In fact, Che’ Carter, principal of Clague Middle School, is a past recipient of a Westerman Scholarship.
Carter, who attended the reception and board meeting with the daughter who was a baby when he won the scholarship, said he owes Westerman so much.
“A lot of where I am right now has to do with me getting that scholarship,” said Carter, who has worked with Westerman on a strategic planning team.
Nelson says Westerman always says yes to requests that have the potential to help AAPS, despite the fact he left the superintendent position more than 40 years ago.
The AAPS preschool program is a particularly appropriate vehicle for honoring Westerman because the program is the embodiment of the ideals he lives by, Nelson noted, adding, “Our putting in place a permanent reminder of his example will help us remember, and hopefully emulate, the lessons taught us by Scott.”
Former AAPS communications director Liz Margolis said the district has been blessed to have Westerman not only as an influential and groundbreaking superintendent in the late 60’s early 70’s, but as a continued champion of the district.
“Over the 12 years I worked with the district, I personally experienced and saw the support this man offered to five superintendents,” said Margolis. “His quiet offer to meet them for coffee, serve on committees and be a sounding board, I know was valuable to them as they navigated this district. Many of these superintendents saw Scott as a mentor—a man who had been in their seat during turbulent times and who represented the best of the best in education. His commitment to students and their right to the best education possible is a model of how, even during the tough times, every educator and person working in education should follow.”
She said Westerman’s willingness to take on the tough subjects in a humane and thoroughly dedicated way exemplifies his unending commitment to one of the tenants of this country: free public education for all.
“As a support to me during my tenure with the district, Scott offered sage advice, wise counsel and an open ear,” she said. “He never presumed to know the answers but he always did.”
Margolis said that while she no longer drives by the preschool on her way to work every day, she will make a special trip to see his name on the building.
“It will bring me assurance,” she said, “that Scott’s legacy will continue to guide us, influence us and be there always to challenge us, in the nicest way possible, to do what is best for the children: embrace them, teach them, and love them.”
Westerman spoke for several minutes at both the reception and meeting, thanking community members he called “change agents, without whom I would not be here.”
He said he wants to do something similar to the Marcine Westerman Endowment for Art & Music Teachers in the Ann Arbor Public Schools, which he started in memory of his wife, a former AAPS trustee who died in 2004.
“It’s just a desire to use portions of whatever resources I have to make this enterprise here even better,” said Westerman, who lives at Glacier Hills Senior Living Community. “I’m not going to be able to come over here and read to kids and that kind of stuff. But maybe there is some way in which —through an investment of a modest amount of money—I might be able to know that’s happening.”
The name change will take effect at the start of the school year.