Leni Jacksen (1918-2016)
Leni was born in Berlin in 1918, to middle class Jewish parents, and lived through a horrific time in German history. In 1937, at the age of 19, she was sent to live with her brother in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There, she briefly attended a school run by a Catholic convent, then moved with her brother to Las Vegas, New Mexico, where they were joined by their mother. Some years later, Leni travelled with a friend to New Orleans, where she met her future husband, Eric Jacksen, also a German Jewish refugee. She and Eric lived in Philadelphia for a while, but eventually settled in Los Angeles. Leni was one of the founding parents and staff members of Westland School, and taught there for nearly 40 years.
In 1977, while teaching at Westland, Leni and Neal Wrightson met. In 1980, she took a leave of absence from Westland and taught Kindergarten at her friend Maggy Haves’ preschool with the hope of starting an elementary school. During that year, she invited her colleague Neal to join her. Together, with the help of an intrepid band of parents, they expanded the Maggy Haves Elementary School, soon to become the Children’s Community School. They located the school at the current site, where about 35 children and one additional teacher (brave Neal Hemmelstein, in his first teaching job), taught a Kindergarten and 1st grade. Each subsequent year, a new Kindergarten class and additional teachers were added, and the school grew in this way until 1987, when the first class of sixth graders graduated.
When Eric died, Leni took a year’s leave of absence from CCS. She had been invited to teach in schools in the former East Germany. She returned to CCS but retired soon after. Leni continued to work and consult with children and teachers part-time at CCS before moving to a retirement community in Oakland to be closer to her daughter Diane.
Leni’s tenacity and courage in founding CCS, her powers of observation and insight, her deeply held belief in progressive education and the way children learn, and her steadfast views on parenting, teaching, and social justice live on in the culture of the school. She was a person of passionate beliefs and few filters, who also had a remarkable capacity for love and generosity. It was all of these qualities that fueled our friendship and our work with her and inspired all of us as we strived and struggled to create a vibrant progressive school. There were many challenging times in those exciting, early years and some inspiring triumphs. Many of you reading this joined in the project, put your shoulders to the wheel, and contributed to its success.
Leni led a remarkable life. In her sixties, she decided to start a school! This was a significant and emblematic event, that tells us so much about Leni and how brightly her flame shown. It also allows us to keep those passionately held principles in our minds and hearts, as the school community honors Leni’s memory and journeys towards our 40th Anniversary and beyond.