When it comes to early childhood education, Associate Professor Sallee Beneke, PhD, is a bit of a rock star.
Active in the field for many years, the former pre-school teacher and center director is now preparing the next generation of early childhood educators. Nationally recognized as an early childhood expert, Beneke presented at the National Association for the Education of Young Children in 2013; the No Child Left Behind conference in Chicago in 2014; and the Illinois Early Childhood Higher Education Forum this month. She received a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University of Illinois last year. Beneke is a certified Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) observer, trained to help educators focus on the effectiveness of their interactions with learners in the areas of emotional support, classroom organization and instructional support.
And those are just a few of her honors.
In collaboration with Black Hawk College, Moline, Ill., Beneke secured an Early Childhood Educator Preparation Program Innovation Grant. The grant is providing select pre-school practicum sites with professional development and an early childhood math resource library, while also increasing "best practice" exposure for SAU students in those placements.
In 2013 Beneke was tapped by the Illinois State Board of Education to prepare a report on increasing early mathematical competence in children. As the author and consultant, she spoke with experts in early childhood math from across the state, researched and wrote the published report.
Even though she has become sought after for early childhood math education, Beneke is best known for her expertise in The Project Approach.
An inquiry based learning methodology, The Project Approach has its roots in progressive education movement of the early 20th Century. Projects are in-depth, interactive studies of real-world topics, based on children's interests. They include learning by doing, group discussions and the revisiting of ideas and experiences.
Each summer Beneke and Lillian Katz (her former mentor and the world's foremost authority on The Project Approach) present an institute at St. Ambrose, which draws attendees from across the nation—and even the globe.
Beneke also enjoys involving students and SAU Children's Campus teachers as co-presenters at state and national conferences. An annual trip to Reggio Emilia, Italy, led by Beneke, offers education majors the opportunity to tour and study one of the best early childhood programs in the world.
Beneke points out that in the past several decades, the impact of early childhood education has been studied through brain research and in terms of economic impact (it's the biggest return on investment for low-income children).
"We've learned so much about early childhood education in the past 20 years," said Beneke. "Those of us in the field have always believed in its importance. Now we can prove it."