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Investing in Education

Rooted in Education

By Pamela Kruh

Susan Blankenbaker Noyes has had ample opportunity to consider what constitutes best practices in education. The mother of six children, ages 11 to 22, she has been actively involved in all aspects of elementary and secondary education in her school district. She has seen more than her share of classrooms and teaching methods, and knows her children’s learning styles inside and out.

The children and their education are, in fact, a top priority for Noyes and her husband, Nicholas, a private investor and hands-on father, who live on Chicago’s North Shore. “They are the greatest gifts I’ve been given in life,” says Noyes, who left a successful practice at a major Chicago law firm to in the 1980s to “lay down the law at home with them.”

Her passion for education actually goes back to two women whose “roots were thickly entwined”: her mother, former Indiana state senator Virginia Blankenbaker, and Professor Patricia Albjerg Graham, former dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the first woman dean at Harvard. (She also happens to be Noyes’s godmother.) Noyes’s mother and Graham were college roommates and sorority sisters who ended up marrying roommates and fraternity brothers.

Growing up in Indianapolis, the oldest of five children, Noyes followed in the footsteps of her mother, who also worked until she had kids, then stayed home and became involved with the local schools, eventually becoming chair of the Indiana Senate Education Committee.

But it was a fortuitous reconnection with Graham in Chicago, years later, which motivated Noyes to adopt education as her main philanthropy. Graham moved to the Windy City in 1991 to become president of the Spencer Foundation, a funder of educational research. Noyes, already thinking about her own children’s education (she gave birth to the first four between 1984 and 1989), soon was having conversations with Graham, at the dining room table, about best practices and other education issues.

“I was sitting with one of the nation’s leading educators who was doing important work on education in this country. It left a deep mark on me,” she says.

Noyes subsequently joined several boards related to education improvement that she remains active on, including the Chicago Public Education Fund, a successor to the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (for which she was recruited by now- U.S. Senator Barack Obama). She also is involved with the Chicago Constitutional Rights Foundation, which helps foster schools’ efforts to provide young people with skills to become active and responsible citizens. In 2005, she was elected to the New Trier Township High School Board of Education in her school district. Additionally, Noyes is on the Ed School’s Visiting Committee and Dean’s Council.

“The [Ed] school is a national leader in understanding and developing best practices in education and a logical place for me [to concentrate on],” she says. “I feel privileged to be surrounded by other education experts and to learn from the school’s outstanding professors and graduate students.”

For Noyes, who also writes a public service-focused column for North Shore Magazine titled “Make it Better,” it’s all about figuring out what works best in education. “If we could just get it right with the education of all children in America, we would solve most of the difficult social issues facing this country,” she says. “We empower kids whom we educate well.”

Pamela Kruh is a freelance writer who develops and writes strategic communications on a range of topics.

Ed. Spring 2007

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