Lasting Memories

Annabelle Markoff
Sept. 1, 1921-Dec. 2, 2012
Davis, California

Annabelle Most Markoff, an innovator in the field of early childhood education, died on Sunday, Dec. 2, in Davis, Calif. She was 91.

An elementary school teacher before and during the early years of her marriage, Markoff raised three children and then attended graduate school in special education during the late 1960s in a newly created joint program between San Francisco State University and the University of California at Berkeley.

She had initially returned to work in the field of education in 1963 when, as a Palo Alto housewife married to pianist Mortimer Markoff, she was invited by the local school district to teach in a new federally funded program aimed at teaching children with average IQs who were failing in school.

Although she was part of a broader movement of women returning to the workforce during the 60s, initially she did so without a political agenda and with a good deal of trepidation.

"I hadn't yet joined the group of women who saw work outside the home as liberating," she wrote. "Although I was very excited by the challenge of the new task, I was troubled not only by my inadequacy, but by the loss of close contact with my children in this so important early part of their lives."

In a local newspaper profile that appeared soon after she became a college professor she said: "I pursued ever opportunity that presented itself, went through every door that opened -- and the doors kept opening."

Entering graduate school on two campuses that were then wracked by student unrest, she would go on to become a nationally respected educator who was instrumental in helping foster an educational movement that redefined the focus of "learning disabilities" from the individual student, to include the teacher, classroom, family and community.

However her graduate career was almost cut short amidst the highly-politicized climate of the time.

Arriving in a newly created program she was able to create her own curriculum and chose to study with Dr. Mike Bower, who had previously headed the California State Department of Mental Hygiene. Her doctoral thesis was funded by the California Council on Criminal Justice and involved training kindergarten through second grade teachers to individualize their teaching.

Her adviser had believed in the concept of "primary prevention," which argued that a child's earliest educational experience was critical to successful learning. The project was successful, but funding was cut after two years when a Congressman inquired: "What is that lady in California doing identifying criminals in kindergarten?"

The cut in funding almost cost her her doctoral degree when she was unable to test the children in the program to determine their level of achievement.

She joined the faculty at San Francisco State University in 1972 as an assistant professor in the Special Education Department. In 1976 she became an assistant professor in the San Jose State University Department of Special Education.

Throughout her career she consulted both inside the U.S. and internationally and in 1979, with several of her colleagues she founded the Annabelle Markoff School in Belmont, Calif., to apply her teaching ideas to children with learning disabilities.

She authored a number of diagnostic tests to inventory children's reading skills and published two books: "Teaching low-achieving children reading, spelling, and handwriting: Developing perceptual skills with the graphic symbols of language" (1976) and "Within Reach: Academic Achievement Through Parent-Teacher Communication" (1992). In 1988 financial industry executive Charles Schwab and his wife Helen financed the creation of the Parents Educational Resource Center, and Markoff became the founding director. She retired in 1993.

Born in Los Angeles on Sept. 1, 1921, the third child of Bernard Most and Bertha Salzman. Her father owned a small hat business, which failed during the Great Depression and her mother died when Markoff was 12. In high school her classmates included Jack Webb, the movie actor.

She attended college at the University of California at Los Angeles. During college and afterwards she was active in a variety of politically progressive organizations. In Palo Alto she served on the boards of both the Coop Market and the Jewish Community Center.

She is survived by a son, John, and daughter, Ellen, both of San Francisco, Calif.; a daughter, Joan, of Sacramento; and two grandchildren, Hannah and Matthew.