When Susan Garlinghouse and her husband, Kent, moved to Topeka almost 50 years ago, the last thing on their minds was creating a private school in Topeka.
Eight months pregnant with their fourth child, Susan had enough on her plate just trying to get settled in a new city.
That all changed a few years later when their oldest child was in eighth grade. Her math class had finished its regular book in February, and because the teacher didn’t know what to do with them for the rest of the school year, they did pointless busy work.
“Kent came home and I was livid,” Susan said. “When he asked what was wrong, I told him ‘Kim’s in middle school. Do you know what happened in middle school today? Nothing!’”
That was a turning point for Susan. Her personal passion for learning drove her to seek something better for her kids. She began to look for alternatives. With a strong foundation in independent schools, she knew what she wanted from a school—an environment that would foster continual learning and push her kids to become problem solvers.
“There is always more learning,” Susan said. “Unless kids are continually pushed, their brains atrophy.”
Not finding what she was looking for, Susan and Kent decided to open their own school in Topeka. It took a few years of work and collaboration, but Topeka Collegiate opened in the fall of 1982 with 43 students in first through eighth grade—their son was in the fifth grade that year and their youngest attended all eight grades at Topeka Collegiate.
Even though enrollment was small, the school still had a teacher for every grade. Now, 35 years later, Topeka Collegiate serves between 150 and 200 students and includes a preschool.
Susan says the fundamental philosophy behind the school is simple. It seeks to challenge students at every level and foster a habit of lifelong learning. Even though it is a private school, Topeka Collegiate was never intended to be exclusively for the wealthy.
“We believe every child should have the opportunity to receive the best education,” Susan said. “More than 40 percent of the kids at Collegiate are on financial assistance to help them afford the cost.”
She also says parental involvement is higher because when tuition is coming directly from their pockets, parents expect more from the school and track their children’s progress more closely.
Susan believes that education is only as strong as the weakest link. When quality education is provided to all students, it betters the opportunity for everyone.
“If we don’t take care of the other children in our schools and our community,” Susan said, “then our own children won’t be as successful.”
She likens it to a New York Times article she read 25 years ago that detailed the drive-by shooting of a local high school student. When the reporter interviewed the father of the boy that was killed, he tearfully said, “I was so worried about my own son, I forgot to care about the other children.”
That statement had a profound effect on Susan. She has dedicated her life to caring about the “other” children.
Susan’s desire to make a positive impact through education once again came to the forefront with her involvement in making the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center a reality.
“Topeka was one of the few capital cities across the country that did not have some type of children’s museum,” Susan said.
Intrigued by the opportunity to bring that type of educational experience to our capital city, Susan found herself brainstorming ideas with other like-minded individuals. The 15-member founding board spent close to five years laying the groundwork for The Kansas Children’s Discovery Center. In 2008, even during one of the worst economic times for people and businesses, the Topeka community saw the value in offering this type of educational experience and opened their hearts and their wallets.
“People in Topeka are really forward thinking,” Susan said. “It was amazing to see the outpouring of support for this endeavor.”
Once again, Susan’s passion for education played an instrumental role in bettering the community.
“I find meaning in my life by doing something that has long-term benefits for everyone around me,” Susan said. “I simply used my creativity and vision to find opportunities to advance the most people in the best manner.”
2018 Junior Achievement of Kansas Topeka Business Hall of Fame Laureates: