An advocate for teaching kids early

The Baltimore Sun

Sandra "Sandy" Skolnik ardently believed the young children of working parents needed to learn something new and worthwhile every day. In the past three decades, she became a determined and articulate advocate for quality child care and education for the very young.

The longtime executive director of the Maryland Committee for Children died of lung cancer Wednesday at Keswick Multi-Care Center. She was 69 and lived in Mount Washington.

"She was a visionary and a pioneer," said state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick. "She saw the opportunities for education of very young children long before it had been proved by scientific data. She was a huge advocate for families and always set high standards."

Mrs. Grasmick said that Mrs. Skolnik was never satisfied with her work and was "always seeking the next good step to take to help children."

She was born Sandra Morrison in New York City, and her father died when she was 2 years old. Family members said her mother went to work, and young Sandra wound up caring for her grandmother.

In a 1991 Sun interview, she described her childhood as "particularly difficult" and that, as a result, she gravitated to working on children's issues.

"I wanted to do it differently," she said. "I guess you could say I've made a profession out of that."

Her family moved to Baltimore, where she was a 1956 Forest Park High School graduate and took courses at the old Baltimore Junior College and University of Maryland, College Park.

Mrs. Skolnik was a lab technician at the University of Maryland Medical Center and briefly ran a Falls Road antiques store. She became active in local politics through the old 5th District Reformed Democratic organization and, with her husband, helped run the campaign of former state Sen. Rosalie S. Abrams.

As part of her political experience, she was named head of the Baltimore City Board of Election Supervisors.

"Sandy was someone who liked to see things happen, and she made things happen," Mrs. Abrams said yesterday. "She was a very bright lady, and she knew how to get things to run."

In the early 1970s, Mrs. Skolnik became involved with the Maryland Committee for Children, a group founded in 1945, when she was asked to run a conference on children and families.

"They had hoped to get a couple hundred people," she said in 1991. "About 800 showed up, including the governor [Marvin Mandel]. The committee was very excited; they came to me afterward and asked if I would like to be director."

In The Sun profile, Mrs. Skolnik said her committee's mission was "to change how people think about young children and families, to be involved in changing the American workplace, to make that workplace a friendlier environment for children and for families."

Her effort was focused on providing care for the children of working parents, and she paid particular attention to mothers.

"During the Second World War, [we] ran the day-care centers for Rosie the Riveter's kids," she said, adding that American family life was not the same after. "Rosie wasn't going to go home again; ... there was a desperate need for child care."

When Mrs. Skolnik began working with her organization, it had a small annual budget -- $20,000 and two part-time workers, the director and a secretary. It grew to a staff of 60.

"It is now widely understood that learning begins at birth," she said in a speech she frequently gave. "All the experiences children have from birth through age 4 -- playing with other children, listening to songs and stories, using crayons and pencils, and exploring the world around them -- build important social and cognitive skills that will be the foundation of success in school and in life."

Throughout her career, Mrs. Skolnik regularly met with political leaders to make her views known. She was diagnosed with cancer about a year ago and underwent surgery. After she stopped coming to her downtown office, she spoke with staff on the phone several times a day.

"She had an amazing perseverance," said former state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a friend. "She was hard to resist. She believed wholeheartedly in what she was doing, and once she was focused, you couldn't get her off a topic."

Mrs. Skolnik collected cookbooks and enjoyed cooking. She also did flower arranging but spent much of her free time with her three grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Sol Levinson & Brothers, 8900 Reisterstown Road.

Survivors also include her husband of 46 years, Leonard Skolnik; a son, Adam Skolnik of Ellicott City; and a daughter, Rachel Cogen of Baltimore.

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