It’s 5:30 pm on a weekday night, unusually early for Annie Palches, a confessed workaholic, to be home. The Early Childhood Coordinator leans back in her living room chair, cradles a cup of hot tea, and with calm and sustained passion, talks about how children learn, their need for play and self-direction, and most emphatically, the importance of regarding every child as an individual.
She is a warm presence, and when she talks about her work, dealing with three- to five-year-old preschool children who need support for language, listening, emotional or developmental skills, it’s like listening to an anthem for the child.
In evenly paced words, she says, “I think we’re losing sight of the fact that we do not want to lose sense of the whole child… and do not want to have all children the same.”
Asked why she chose to focus on the youngest children — the most difficult and, initially, the most challenging to families — she answers quickly. “It is where you can make the most difference.”
What she does is in great part who she is. “It is my whole philosophy of my reason for being,” Ms. Palches says, “so it will be hard to retire.”
But next month, she will indeed retire after 33 years of working in the Island school system. “When I came here, one in 10,000 kids had an autistic disorder,” she says, reflecting on the changes in her field across the nation. “Now it’s one in 110.”
Daniel Seklecki, Director of Student Support Services, says: “She’s taken her native intelligence and smarts and woven it to fit into this particular culture. She’s become such an informed resource for doctors, clinicians, teachers, families, that when there are any questions, Annie gets the call.”
Ms. Palches joined the Island school system in 1978 to help coordinate special education from kindergarten through high school. In 1981, she designed and developed Project Headway.
“I used to go into preschools and the kids would ask, ‘Whose mommy are you?’ A few years later I’d go in and they’d say, ‘Are you the teacher’s mommy?'” She laughs. “And now it’s, ‘Whose grandma are you?'”
Retirement. As she pictures having the luxury of time, she adds to the list of what’s ahead: knitting, traveling, baking bread, gardening, and more theater work.
She has been an actor ever since her friend Sara Crafts introduced her to Island theater, working with Lee Fierro and Mary Payne.
“I fit it in even though I don’t really have the time,” Ms. Palches says. “When you’re working on a play you can’t let your mind wander to the meeting you’re going to have the next day. It’s helped me to remember to be in the moment.”
Retirement. Her smile lingers. Then, as if reconsidering, she says, “But it isn’t really retirement. I’ll probably never fully retire.”
The 59-year-old Palches, a “lifelong learner” who earned a degree in counseling from Lesley University while on a sabbatical, plans to work independently as a licensed mental health counselor.
James Weiss, Martha’s Vineyard school superintendent for the past six years, credits Ms. Palches with making the Island’s preschool and early childhood programming the best he’s seen in his 30 years as an educator: “She talks a lot about the kids, what they need and how they need it — not about the adult needs or the school needs.”
He lists her various roles — teaching, organizing, administrating, facilitating transitions, writing the kindergarten handbook, conducting intake interviews — and refers to what he calls, “Annie’s mantra”: dealing with children as individuals and customizing the programs to be developmentally appropriate to each one.
Kate DeVane, who lavishly praises Ms. Palches, credits her with shaping the lives of her six-year-old twins. “It’s as much what she’s done for me as a parent,” she says. “She helped me navigate the Early Intervention Program. It’s like she’s the conductor, getting all the bits and pieces together and getting everything moving.”
All part of a long day’s work. Ms. Palches sounds matter-of-fact: “There’s no magic about what we’re doing. We’re there as resources for people who are going to make the difference — the people who are with the child all the time.”
“It’s interesting to depend on someone for more than 30 years and know things are going to be handled with the utmost degree of scholarship and professionalism,” Mr. Seklecki says, referring to her as “the driving force” when it concerns serving Island youngsters.”
And he offers this prediction: “She’ll enjoy her husband, Peter, and her son, Jake, but she has too many things to accomplish to retire… I think it will be a short bridge to another aspect of a career to serve and support families of children with disabilities.”
Certainly Ms. Palches loves her job. “When I leave the office to visit a school or a child at home, ” she says, “I always say, I’m going to go play.”
But the increasing emphasis on achievement tests concerns her. “High stakes testing,” she calls it. “What we’re saying is, this is what you need to learn. I think if that drives the curriculum, it will push other things out of the school day like recess, music, the arts. But it’s only one way to measure what children understand.”
In separate conversations, both Mr. Seklecki and Mr. Weiss refer to Ms. Palches’s tireless work and long hours. Mr. Weiss describes the end of a typical day: “Her office is upstairs, and I’ll look up and see the light up there and let her know that I’m going, and she’ll say, ‘I’ll be gone in just a minute.’ But if I drove to Oak Bluffs and back, she’d still be here.”
Fortunately for Ms. Palches, her husband, a long-time educator and former Island school superintendent from 1980 to 1983, is sympathetic to his wife’s schedule.
The tea cools, the conversation winds to a close, and Ms. Palches offers parting advice: “I think it’s important that people in education as well as in human services are really clear about boundaries: This is what I can do; this is what I can’t do. You can’t fix everything.”