What Would Fred Rogers Do? Rita Catalano in Conversation with Bill Isler

In Pittsburgh, local leaders reflect on the legacy of Fred Rogers.

After more than 25 years at Saint Vincent College, the last four as executive director of the college’s Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media, Rita Catalano will retire at the end of 2013. Rita has been a critical part of the evolution of the Kids+Creativity Network, especially in its work to remake learning for very young children. Under her leadership, the Fred Rogers Center has become a one-of-a-kind institution and a true asset to the children’s media industry as a source of research, scholarship, and advocacy.

In December, Remake Learning sat down with Rita Catalano and Bill Isler, CEO of the Fred Rogers Company, to discuss the lasting legacy of Fred Rogers in the work of Kids+Creativity, and in children’s media as a whole.

Remake Learning: How did you come to be Executive Director of the Fred Rogers Center and what has that journey been like?

Rita Catalano: I was involved with the Rogers Center from the planning years. The Center was established in 2003 and I always had a support role to the Executive Directors who preceded me, beginning with Bill Isler and then Max King. I was part of implementing our signature programs and then when Brother Norman Hipps became president of St. Vincent [in 2010], he was committed to finding more concrete ways that the work of the Rogers Center could integrate with the academic programs of the college.

It’s been a great journey. I use the term “career topper,” but I think we’ve made a difference.

RL: Can you share some examples of how the Rogers Center has connected with not just St. Vincent, but also had a broader impact?

Catalano: Two of the concrete things that came out of that planning process were a new undergraduate minor in Children’s Studies at the college, which has done really well in terms of bringing in students from a variety of disciplines—that’s the intention, for it to be a multidisciplinary minor; and then there’s the Fred Rogers Scholars Program. The college committed to funding five four-year scholarships of $10,000. Now we have ten Fred Rogers scholars. I think that program shows an institutional commitment to the Fred Rogers Center and to Fred’s legacy and to liberal arts education.

Fred Rogers CenterRL: From the side of someone running a center studying the changes in children’s media or from the side of someone running a company who is producing that media—what are the most important changes you’re seeing in the field?

Bill Isler: One of the things that I think about is how broadcast television has changed. Where it might have taken Fred Rogers and the Neighborhood five years to start receiving national recognition, it literally takes weeks now. It’s overwhelming. Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood was seen as a success probably within two months. Peg + Cat, probably 4-6 weeks. The timing of it is so compressed because of the quickness of how people receive information through web streams versus direct broadcast.

The quality and capability of what people are doing today is just beyond belief. Rita’s seeing it with the apps that the Early Career Fellows are doing. We’re seeing it with an organization like Schell Games and the quality of the material that is being developed by young people who really do love the medium and love the fact that they’re working for young children.

Catalano: I think what we’re seeing is parents and educators looking for more guidance about how to make decisions. We’ve been trying to address that. The other thing that we’re seeing is that the devices and the content on the devices are becoming more and more interactive and accessible to really young people, so that the users are becoming not just passive users but creators. You’ve got Scratch Jr., you’ve got all these opportunities for kids and for educators to be creating their own content, their own professional development experiences.

What we don’t know is that it’s not the same for every family. We’ve got enough research to know that Latino families use media in certain ways; we know that African American families use particular kinds of media. We know that low-income families tend to get access through their phones, if they don’t have a computer. What we see is people understanding that we need to learn more about exactly how people are using media and the benefits.

Isler: The other thing that we have to do is [deal with] the issue of quality. Developmentally appropriate is really important. I think the issue of quality is inherent in everything we do on behalf of young children. Those two areas—the intentionality of what we do and the quality of what we do—that’s what is really important.

Catalano: That’s been one of our goals with ELE (Early Learning Environment). I remember the symposium we had back in 2007 that Roberta Schomburg our senior fellow put together for us. I think for a few years it was all, “Okay, let’s just talk about technology, let’s just talk about technology and media” and now there’s more understanding that we don’t need to convince people that technology is good. Now we have to try to figure out how to help people understand that it’s part of the bigger picture of learning, and that it’s part of the bigger picture of learning for all kids.

RL: Bill, you’ve known Rita for years both as a colleague and friend. What can you tell us about her role at Fred Rogers Center?

Isler: Rita was at the table when the concept of what the college was going to do with Fred Rogers, was being discussed, as was Brother Norman Hipps. If I would be asked about who was most responsible for how this had come about, it would be Rita, it would be Brother Norm, and it would be Jim Will [the previous college president]. It’s amazing to me the national respect it has after ten years. I think that Rita’s contribution to this starts at day one and it will not end at year ten, it will go on.

Catalano: We don’t talk about it enough, but one of the things that the Rogers Center has the honor of doing, is to be the stewards of Fred’s archive. Establishing that archive was under Bill’s leadership. We’ve got 63 video interviews of people who worked with Fred. Everybody was interviewed. Fred’s family, researchers, media types out in the field who had any insightful connections to Fred.

The archive is organized into different sections. The first one is music, the second is the Neighborhood, the third is Fred out beyond the Neighborhood—Fred with Arsenio Hall, Fred testifying before the Senate. I think the thing about the exhibit is that it tells the story of Fred Rogers, the man and Fred Rogers, Mister Rogers. That’s the story we try to tell.

RL: It says quite a bit about Fred Rogers as a person and about the impact of his work that your two organizations bear his name and are incredibly influential in this space. Could you share a bit about where you see that legacy and that influence expanding beyond what we do here in Pittsburgh and in Latrobe?

Catalano: I think the two organizations mirror the way Fred embodied a variety of interests and talents and commitments. Yes, Fred was a producer and a creator of children’s media, [but] everything he did was based on what we know about child development, based on the research, based on that study.

Fred reached out. He was perceived by many to be the voice of children, to stand for something, so he was interviewed, he testified before the senate. I think the two organizations represent all of those things.

Isler: Are you ever surprised by the positive reaction that Fred’s name draws today?

Catalano: I remember when we started the Rogers Center, people said “Oh gosh, we have to do this because these younger kids, they won’t have seen the Neighborhood—people are going to forget Fred Rogers.” Well, you know what? When we have interviews for the Fred Rogers Scholars, these kids who come in, they’re 18 years old [and] they talk about Mister Rogers Neighborhood.

I remember one specific instance at the Erikson Institute in Chicago and Alan Gershenfeld was one of the people there. We put out an opening question about what Fred meant to them, and Alan Gershenfeld—who I think of as this really cool guy, out there in games and learning—said, “We have this institute every summer for people making games and I start the institute with a clip from Fred’s Senate hearing.” And I thought, “Wow.”

Isler: I have to be honest, after all these years I’m sometimes amazed that he’s mentioned in a Huffington Post article or a New York Times article.

[one_third][blockquote style=”large”]Now we don’t need to convince people that technology is good. Now we have to try to figure out how to help people understand that it’s part of the bigger picture of learning, and that it’s part of the bigger picture of learning for all kids.

-Rita Catalano [/blockquote][/one_third][two_third_last]

RL: You mentioned earlier about information being disseminated more quickly with technology these days. What has been your experience with the old media, the Neighborhood, for example, on these more modern platforms that perhaps Daniel or Peg + Cat has been specifically designed for?

Catalano: We don’t have complete control over it. You have social media, you have Fred all over YouTube. As much as you might like to control it, you can’t.

Isler: It’s like Garden of Your Mind, which is now at ten million hits. I was at a corporation yesterday and a guy uses that for his corporate team meeting every year.

Catalano: And people know about it right away. It came out during the first Clinton Global Initiative that we attended. Rob Lippencott from PBS was there and he said “Oh, did you see it?” I think that’s another reason that Fred is still present.

Isler: I think the story of Jesse Schell, one which I heard about when he talked at the PBS producers meeting. He took his daughter to Idlewild Park and what he realized when he rode the [Neighborhood] trolley ride is that Fred Rogers did something nobody else ever did: at the end of the story, everybody came back together. That’s became part of Jesse’s work.[/two_third_last]

Catalano: You know, Gregg Behr, every time I’ve heard him talk about Kids+Creativity, I hear: “This is where Fred Rogers was, this is how we’re building on that legacy.” And people see that. People hear that message, see what’s happening in Pittsburgh and they say, “That makes sense.” There’s something organic there that I think Fred is the root of.

RL: Looking ahead, both at the transition at the Center with the new Executive Director, and at the other initiatives that are on the horizon for either of your organizations—what are you most looking forward to?

Catalano: As far as the Rogers Center is concerned, we have Rick Fernandes coming in January and I think you’ll see our signature programs continue. You’ll have someone whose got a strong background and network within the media industry and so I think you’ll see more of that bridging [between the center and the media industry].

I think we’re going to see more interest in ways to disseminate what we know from the research about what works, what doesn’t work, what’s quality, what isn’t quality. So, you’ll see continuation of signature programs and some closer connections for the bridging of children’s media, maybe doing a little more to be the sort of channel for communicating the research.

Isler: This is a really exciting time for the Center and for the College. We never had the intensity in child development that we have with Junlei Li, [newly appointed professor of early learning and children’s media]. It was not a part of the faculty and it is now. So there’s a lot of positive things there.

Catalano: I really think partnership is a necessary part of the future too. You have to do it, you have to form partnerships. It would be great if some of those partnerships now can start to help build this continuum of strong learning, birth through high school and beyond. Pittsburgh is so well-positioned to do that because people are doing this work in all these different areas and we know how to work together.

Published December 20, 2013