Jan Swanson has always been interested in teaching the whole child. Her innovation and dedication in founding the North Wall Child Development Center in 1981 and spending the next four decades educating children has earned her the 2020 YWCA Women of Achievement Education Award.
The annual Women of Achievement awards recipients are typically honored during a fundraising luncheon, but this year there will be a virtual celebration today. The virtual event is free, but people can purchase a take home meal from Masselow’s Steakhouse and other Northern Quest Resort & Casino Restaurants for $125. Registration information is available at ywcaspokane.org.
Swanson grew up in the small town of Mill City, Oregon, and came to Spokane to study English at Whitworth University. After she earned her degree in K-12 education, she stayed in the area. She taught at West Valley High School for three years before becoming a stay-at-home mother.
Though Swanson primarily thought of herself as a mother for nine years while she began the job of raising four children, she never stopped working. She ran an in-home preschool with her children and other neighborhood children and also taught night classes in English at Spokane Falls Community College.
In 1981, she founded the North Wall Child Development Center with her husband, Wayne, who was the business manager.
“That was my love,” she said. “We did that together for 40 years.”
She said her emphasis was on positive discipline, though at the time spanking was still accepted in some schools.
“That was not popular in the early ’80s,” she said of her emphasis on positive discipline.
Swanson always told the teachers she hired to avoid the words “no” or “don’t” and instead focus on finding a win-win solution.
“For strong-willed children, the only way is to cooperate and collaborate,” she said.
Her life was forever changed by her oldest child, who was both highly energetic and gifted. Swanson said she recognized he just needed to be challenged academically. She was inspired to go back to Whitworth and earn a master’s degree in gifted education.
Her son also prompted her exploration of positive discipline.
“My oldest challenged me and positive discipline worked wonderfully on him,” she said.
Around 1990, the North Wall Child Development Center became North Wall Schools, serving children from birth to grade six. The school is open to all, but specializes in teaching gifted children.
“That’s our niche,” Swanson said. “We specialize in that, but there’s no entrance exam. It’s definitely open to everyone.”
Their classrooms group students by ability, not age, so there can be multiple grades in each class. That allows children to learn at their own pace.
“There’s a ton of different types of bright children,” she said. “Some don’t fit in a sit-still classroom very well.”
Swanson said she has always believed teachers should make the curriculum fit the child, not the other way around. Her goal has been to have a positive influence on children’s education.
“They have so much potential, so much to give,” she said.
Swanson officially retired four years ago. She retired because she and her husband wanted to spend more time visiting their grandchildren and traveling.
“My husband was really ready, and he wanted us to retire together,” she said. “We love the people who replaced us. They’re doing a great job.”
But Swanson is still the school’s executive director, and the school’s business office is tucked into her home. Until the COVID-19 pandemic began, she was going to the school once a week to teach Spanish. Even though she’s 73, she can’t commit to slowing down.
“I still get up at 5 a.m. and go jogging,” she said.
She also uses her time to organize Block Watches in her neighborhood.
“Right now, that’s kind of my calling here in my neighborhood, is connecting people,” she said.
Swanson said she was humbled and appreciative when she learned of the YWCA award and said she’s honored to be included in a list of influential women.
“They’re such amazing women,” she said. “It’s just a really nice honor.”
She said people from throughout her career, including former students, have contacted her to congratulate her and tell her how she influenced them, allowing her to connect back to her career.
“It’s been such a joyful experience,” she said. “Looking back over 40 years, it’s such a gratifying experience.”