Thelma Farley

Thelma Farley

Bachelor of Arts in Music Education '61

Thelma Farley ’61 always marched to a different beat. She grew up with musical inclinations that led her to the former Rosary Hill College, and a career that has struck a chord from coast to coast.

Thelma – she prefers that to Ms. Farley, she tells her students – is a nationally acclaimed child and adolescent development specialist and has at various times been consultant to the Federal Department of Education and public school districts in areas of elementary and secondary school reform.

She’s also founder of Beacon Day School. Begun in 1982, the private, independent and non-profit school in Oakland, California, literally garnered a  U.S. Department of Education “Break the Mold A+ award “ for her unconventional but results-proven approach to teaching children and adolescents based on how they learn, rather than how teachers may be trained to teach.

The school’s mission is to “create passionate learners for life, with the skills, courage, competence and commitment to achieve whatever they need to accomplish, now and in the future.”

That sounds very much like the motivational engine that put Thelma Farley herself on the road to achievement, back when she was a teenager, growing up in Buffalo’s All Saints parish. Her parents, neither of whom finished grade school, ran a mom and pop store – Farley’s Delicatessen – and fostered an atmosphere of music that resonated with young Thelma.

Her father grew up in the mining hills of Pennsylvania and had a passion for folk music. Thelma quickly learned to play the piano and the pipe organ, and got good enough to play at weddings and funerals by the age of 14 – a talent that earned her at least some of the money that enabled her to attend college.

Fine arts deeply embedded

“I aspired to go to Rosary Hill to be a music major,” Thelma explains. “What was exciting was that the college was excitingly new, it offered a broad liberal arts program for women, and the fine arts were deeply embedded in the degree program.”

After graduating with a degree in music education, she taught music at a junior high school in Niagara Falls for a year, got married, and had her first child. After another teaching stint in Elba, New York, her second and third child came along, and eventually she landed a teaching position with the Buffalo Public Schools in 1969.

By 1973 she was working in the school system’s Department of Integration. From there she went to the district curriculum office to create new programs for multiple schools. While working in the Curriculum Department she met and made a connection with Robert Wilson, the founder of EPIC – Every Person Influences Children – in 1978.

EPIC is a non-profit organization that addresses the social and emotional development of children and adolescents. Today it’s a national program for families, schools and children and is available in hundreds of schools and communities across the country. Thelma was the program developer and primary author of EPIC.

After some 18 years in the public schools in Buffalo, “trying to change things from within,” as she put it, she realized the only way she could take a new, more effective approach to teaching children was to “jump ship and do it myself.” In the field of business it’s called Research and Development, in education its called building a model school.

Her youngest son, Jordan, was accepted at the University of California at Berkeley, and when Thelma wondered where she could start her own school and try out her own ideas, all roads led to the Bay area on the west coast. “People there are always interested in the new, always willing to try things, and especially interested in education reform,” she says.

Thelma thus designed and created the Beacon education program, which has been producing successful life-long learners for 25 years. And the most noticeable difference between Beacon Day School and most other schools is the level of engagement on the part of the students.

“They’re busy learning”

 “Visitors come into the building and the first thing they say is that it ‘feels different,’” Thelma points out. “They see busy kids. Kids that are very engaged – and working hard. Going from class to class, visitors notice that the children are not all doing the same thing, yet they’re all working on the same problem. That’s a major attraction in recruiting families – parents say it feels so good. Because the kids are motivated. They’re busy learning.”

Which leads us back to Thelma herself, back when she was on the Rosary Hill campus, with an insatiable thirst for learning that had to be quenched. And, as she reveals, “I was not an easy student.” Asked just what that meant, Thelma said, “I was not a very compliant person. Today that’s called ‘assertive.’ I wanted to have a conversation about most ideas. I wanted someone to see my point of view. To show me and guide me. To make my dream possible. I wanted to be a really effective music teacher.”

That intense desire found equal intensity on the part of the college faculty.

“I was a person who didn’t have much in terms of  material resources, but I was a hard worker, and was so much looking to my education to help me teach music,” Thelma notes. “I can’t imagine how I would have become the teacher I was, and then someone who wanted to fight even harder to do more to put kids first,” without her Rosary Hill education.

 “A lasting and wonderful thing”

“The faculty, especially in the music, literature and philosophy departments, were gifted professors who tolerated my upstart, assertive self. They would make me work hard, but would not walk away from conversations that would become critical to my understanding. My teachers were priests, lay persons and Franciscan nuns. I remember Patricia Curtis, head of the music department, and John Masterson, who taught literature. These were talented professors. And the school was young and had something to prove…these professors knew that what they were doing was going to be a lasting and wonderful thing.”

 How fitting, then, that just as Thelma’s college days have shaped so much of what she’s done professionally, so has her own guidance informed the political career of her son Jim Hayes, who spoke at Daemen College’s most recent commencement ceremony. In sharing a story about his mother, New York State Assemblyman Hayes quoted her:

“This overworked, undergraduate music major with four hours of daily piano and voice practice piled on a full academic day, I found myself making bargains and promises. In those days, it was called praying.

“The bargains were all about trusting that my professors saw my talent…and had patience with my energy to change everything that was static. The blessing is all about how an inspired faculty helped that young woman succeed in life, in a career, in motherhood.

“And imagine that one day my son would give the commencement address at MY SCHOOL. Wow, what a full circle blessing.”

Thelma also has a daughter, Julia Catania, who is director of finance for the Beacon Day School; and another son, Jordan Hayes, a computer architect who owns his own firm.

These days, with Beacon Day School,(www.beaconday.org)  having proven itself a success story in the Oakland, Berkeley and Alameda communities, Thelma has formed a sister agency – the non-profit Education Initiatives Inc.,– taking the key elements that define a good school and making them available “to others who are feeling the frustration I was feeling as a young teacher. We’re saying there’s got to be a better way.” Beacon’s vision asks it to give back to public education . Education Initiatives is the vehicle.

No cookie-cutter approach

Thelma, who’s a sought after consultant and teacher trainer to several East Bay public school districts on the topic of developmentally responsive curricula, has found a new Head of the Beacon School, so she can do what she calls the next part of her mission. In a nutshell, that mission is to reverse  some aspects of conventional thinking that builds curricula on how teachers teach and not on how children and adolescents learn. With the exception of other  progressive schools, most public schools are not making learners out of students.

If you think about it, none of us learns from a cookie-cutter approach, one-size fits all or all on the same day at the same time, Thelma advises. Children and teens learn through very specific ways, depending primarily on their age and stage of development. “Development determines how they think, how they act, and how they learn,” she says. “Instead of finding out how kids learn and building a curriculum that way, we’re stuck with how teachers were taught to teach, one pace fits all, and one test measures the growth.”

“More teachers,” she continues, “need to be trained and supported in teaching according to the way children learn. It’s important to understand how learning takes place at each stage of development. Some things are best learned by doing them, others by observing, or by reading about them. Most things are learned because you have the skill and readiness to take the next step, or put it all together.’’
 
That’s got to change, and therein lies Thelma Farley’s continuing challenge.

“We’re showing people that you can do something to improve education. I never give up. If I get something in my head, it’s going to get done,” she declares passionately, when questioned about her strong suit. “When it came to my work with EPIC, it was staying up at night when my children were asleep, to get the work done. When it came to designing a school my first thought was exactly how do children learn and under what circumstances will they be motivated to learn?”

In the best-selling book, Winning the Brain Race, former Xerox CEO David Kearns, and Hudson Institute Senior Research Fellow Denis Doyle, cite Beacon as a shining example of an educational program that works. They describe it as the “most public of private schools’’ and “a harbinger of things to come.”

Beacon Heaven

Away from the challenges and joys of her work, Thelma loves to read and take in  practically every genre of movie – from old classics and foreign films, to the latest adventure and action flicks. She enjoys talking with colleagues near and far, playing piano, and visiting with her five grandchildren. She returns to Buffalo at least once a year, mainly to see her son, Jim and his family.

But, of course, what drives Thelma most are the school kids to whom she’s devoted her professional energies. Says she: “I do believe I have died and gone to Beacon heaven! I loved to come in each day and watch students learn. It’s such a total experience for me. It’s the kids that show – wow – this is what it’s all about. Talk about motivation, about kids being successful in their own eyes. I want that for every child.”

As her son, New York Assemblyman Jim Hayes, said in his Daemen commencement speech: “Can you imagine…the teenager from Riverside…Class of ’61 and a product of the same legacy that is now yours, used power of learning to not fear failure, embrace change, and thereby serve the community because she saw things as they should be and said: why not?” 

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