Elvie C. Watts, a teacher and administrator who drew on lessons from her childhood in the segregated South as a prominent leader in preschool education in Sacramento, died March 29. She was 97.
Dr. Watts retired in 1988 as head of early childhood education programs and day care centers in the Sacramento City Unified School District. She started in 1966 as a preschool teacher at Washington Elementary School downtown and rose quickly to oversee education for children ages 3 to 5.
She served on the board of the Oak Park Preschool in Sacramento and as an active member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., a service organization of African American women. In addition, she taught child development classes at Los Rios Community College District campuses and California State University, Sacramento.
Dr. Watts emphasized the importance of cultural diversity and parental involvement in early childhood education. Teachers worked closely with families to encourage learning at home. Parents worked one day a week in classrooms and were required to attend weekly meetings with teachers.
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“Elvie believed very strongly in positive learning,” teacher Carol Merritt said. “Every young child came to us with gifts, and our job was to help them grow in their gifts and their idea of the world. In that way, they were learning how to read and learning numbers and learning all the things they needed to – but not in an authoritarian way with things drilled into their heads. We encouraged children to love learning.”
The daughter of a minister and a hairdresser, Elvie Mary Crenchaw was born Feb. 16, 1917, in Little Rock, Ark. She excelled as a student and graduated from Dunbar High School at 16.
Although educated in segregated schools during the oppressive Jim Crow era in the South, she grew up in an African American community of strong, middle-class families that valued learning and service. When Central High School was integrated in the 1950s, her father helped escort black students to campus.
“I come from a family that believes in people and the value of the family,” Dr. Watts said in 1993. “As a child, my mother always took me with her when she took books and food to people in the county hospital. We felt we had to give back to society what God had given to us.”
She graduated from Hampton Institute in Virginia, earned a master’s degree in social work from Atlanta University and received a doctorate in early childhood education from Nova University in Florida. During the 1940s, she lived with sharecroppers and reported on family poverty in Mississippi for the federal government.
She married Lewis G. Watts during World War II and taught in parent-participation preschools in Seattle. She spent five years as a social worker for the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Children in Roxbury, a tough, low-income neighborhood in Boston, while her husband earned a doctorate at Brandeis University. The family settled in Sacramento in 1965.
Dr. Watts volunteered with Grace Day Children’s Home, the Community Services Planning Council and the NAACP. She belonged to The Links Inc., service groups of African American women, and was a longtime member of Parkside Community Church.
She was inducted in 1991 into the Child Care Hall of Fame by Child Action Inc., a coalition of child-care organizations. She also received honors from the African American Educators Hall of Fame, Youth On The Move and Head Start.
She was predeceased by her husband in 1967. She is survived by two sons, Lewis and Michael; a daughter, Ethel; a brother, Milton Crenchaw; two grandsons; and one great-grandson.
A memorial is set for 11 a.m. today at Parkside Community Church, 5700 South Land Park Drive, Sacramento.