82-year-old Louisiana woman never stops teaching

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Eva Kleinpeter, who turned 82 on Wednesday, started her education in a two-room segregated schoolhouse in rural Lafayette Parish. Ten years ago, she retired from a career as a schoolteacher and professor of education.

But she barely slowed down. And she never really stopped teaching.

Kleinpeter volunteers at schools and with civic organizations, and she gives cursive writing instructional workbooks — books that she wrote — to elementary schools.

Three years ago, when he became principal of Wildwood Elementary, Daniel Edwards met Kleinpeter through her work with Volunteers in Public Schools.

“She really wants to make a contribution any way she can and stay engaged with kids,” Edwards said. “I’m 56, so to be on the elementary campus, that keeps me rejuvenated and gives me energy and enthusiasm, and I think that’s part of what keeps her coming. And I’m glad to have her here.”

It’s a long way from where she grew up in rural Lafayette Parish and attended Mouton Switch School, a segregated, two-room school, and went on to graduate from Paul Breaux High School, the parish’s only high school for Black students. Her parents were hardworking but poor, she said. The entire family picked pecans and did other odd jobs to help make ends meet.

“I missed a lot of school to go wash dishes making $2 per day, but our teachers wanted us to get our education and convinced us to stay in school,” she said. “And I did.”

She spent a semester at what is now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, married Milton Kleinpeter, moved to Baton Rouge and enrolled at Southern University, where she got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in elementary education and a master’s in mass communication. She went on to do graduate and continuing education work at Southeastern Louisiana University and LSU, and earned a doctorate at Kansas State University.

Kleinpeter taught second grade at Southern Laboratory School for years, and she created a twice-weekly summer enrichment program for students at the Scotlandville Library. She challenged them with more advanced math and poetry memorization. Some of those students have gone on to earn advanced degrees.

“Everybody thought I was crazy teaching computer to second graders, but everybody started coming in there,” Kleinpeter said. “I do not believe children are dumb. … I want my students to do everything they possibly can.”

Kellee Knighten Hough, an actress and writer who also works as a part-time scientist at a Unilever lab in Connecticut, said Kleinpeter made these challenges enjoyable.

“I didn’t know at that time we were learning pre-algebra and stuff,” Hough said. “I just thought it was fun math stuff to do. We were 7-year-olds learning pre-algebra.”

Kleinpeter, she said, was always a very encouraging instructor.

“She was one of those teachers that once she saw you did well in something, she encouraged you to keep going, keep going, keep going,” Hough recalled. “And if there was something you struggled with, she would actually take the time to break it down and explain it to you in a way that your little-kid mind could grasp. She had the kind of faith in us that I truly, 100% believe that children need to succeed in life. She just made everything possible.”

Kleinpeter, a professor in Southern’s College of Education from 1975 until retiring in 2011, taught aspiring teachers like Sharon Thomas about graphic presentations like PowerPoint and critiqued them strictly.

That preparation came in especially handy the past two school years when teachers were forced to teach online classes because of the COVID pandemic, said Thomas, who is now principal at Highland Elementary School in Baton Rouge.

“She was before her time,” Thomas said.

When Kleinpeter wasn’t teaching students or teachers professionally, she volunteered by teaching computer science through the Upward Bound organization, and she worked with Les Professionales, a cotillion-based program that taught young men the importance of education and social skills. Her education students volunteered to paint and make other improvements at Crestworth Elementary School.

Along the way, Kleinpeter saw that cursive writing wasn’t being taught effectively as children did more of their work on computers. So she developed a method she calls “Writing Made Easy,” and wrote a workbook she prints at her own expense and donates to schools. Her method has received a patent, Kleinpeter said.

“It’s not so much about me,” she said. “It’s about our young people and what they can do if we just work with them and for them.

“It’s amazing what I have witnessed in my life in the last 60 years, how people can make progress if we just give them support. To be honest, I never, never did dream that I would go to college and never did dream would happen in my life,” she said. “I have so many students who tell me the same thing. They would never have done that.”