Expert: Fred Rogers’ legacy is ‘up to every community to finish’

Tuesday, March 12, 2019 | 6:00 AM

Junlei Li is an expert in all things Fred Rogers, even though he never met Pittsburgh’s favorite neighbor.

Li first heard of Rogers while studying child development at Carnegie Mellon University. He watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” on those days he just didn’t want to go to school.

He found it fascinating that he was learning almost two different views on child development: One at CMU and one from Mister Rogers. It wasn’t until he started working in Pittsburgh-area schools that Li saw the value in Rogers’ work.

Li, who went on to direct the Fred Rogers Center and now is the Saul Zaentz senior lecturer in early childhood education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, stopped by Sewickley Academy on March 6 to share a “Fred-centric” story with students, staff and the community.

The program was part of the Geller Speaker Series, made possible through The Geller Family Educational Speaker Fund, which was established to hold an annual forum that raises awareness and improves empathy and kindness among students and adults.

Li spent his day talking with children in the lower, middle and senior schools. He said he was taken-aback by one thing:

“They seemed so ready to not only look for the helpers in the community, but to also be the helpers,” he said.

Li asked the youngsters at the lower school who would help someone with cerebral palsy, an example many adults pause and stop to consider.

The kids raised their hands right away. They wanted to help.

Li’s program is aligned with the school’s mission, said Cricket Mikheev, head of the lower school.

“He speaks so compassionately about helpers,” she said. The students returned to their classrooms and had “rich conversations about how they could take what they learned to help others.”

In the evening, Li presented a program, “What Would Fred Rogers Say?” to parents, teachers and community members.

He talked about Rogers’ goal for young children. It wasn’t that they should know every letter of the alphabet and every number before heading to school.

Learning at a young age is about more than that, Rogers believed.

Rogers wrote that the “six fundamentals of learning readiness” were self-worth, trust, curiosity, capacity to listen and look carefully, capacity to play and solitude.

He is quoted as saying, “What really matters is whether he uses the alphabet for the declaration of war or the description of the sunrise — his numbers for the final count at Buchenwald or the specifics of a brand new bridge.”

Li talked about how, over the years, more pressure has been put on children to do more at a young age. He presented Pennsylvania standards for children entering school. There’s a long list that includes reading and writing.

Teachers and parents in the audience spoke about the continued pressures put on children today and the importance they see of offering a fun, safe learning environment.

Li said the one thing he hoped to get across was that Rogers’ work was not only about children, but about “human development.”

“It’s an unfinished legacy,” Li said. “It’s really up to every community to finish.”