When Bonnie Tenenbaum heard that a student from East Palo Alto Academy (EPAA) was heading off to college – the first in her family to do so – but lacked the means to purchase blankets and other basic items for her dorm room, she didn’t wait for permission or for a program to be established. Instead, recalls former EPAA teacher and Stanford alumna Rebecca Altamirano, “She said to me, ‘please go get her everything she needs.’” With Tenenbaum’s encouragement and funds, Altamirano says, “I went to Target and outfitted this student’s dorm room.”
There are lots of stories like that about Tenenbaum, PhD, a career-long educator and philanthropist who died on October 15 at age 76.
A fierce advocate for students and teachers, Tenenbaum – who taught at several Bay Area high schools and colleges – endowed a faculty chair at Stanford Graduate School of Education. Deborah Stipek, who was dean at the time, recalls that Tenenbaum was the first prospective donor she met with. “I was really nervous, but she immediately put me at ease. I was struck by how down-to-earth she was. I didn’t need to convince her to support the GSE, only help her figure out the best way to do that. “
Professor Guadalupe Valdes, who has occupied the Tenenbaum chair since its establishment, was similarly impressed by Tenenbaum’s devotion. Unlike donors whose involvement ends with their financial contribution, Tenenbaum stayed engaged, often proposing ideas and identifying problems. “Bonnie understood that educational activities need nourishing. It is not enough to touch people with money; it’s the human interaction that makes a difference. What was really unusual about Bonnie is that she cared about education as central to people’s lives. That you could invest in people-making.”
“I saw her as a colleague,” Valdes adds.
Tenenbaum was a sought-after consultant on curricular design and evaluation. In 1995, when the internet was in its infancy, she created the K-12 Internet Resource Center, a free service that today catalogs more than 2,500 web and video resources.
Well known for her candor, Tenenbaum was fearless in pursuing solutions to whatever needed fixing, say those who worked closely with her. Stipek concedes she was “a bit taken aback” by Tenenbaum’s honesty in the beginning but was ultimately grateful for it. “On our first meeting she told me that GSE had a terrible website and typographical errors on an education website were an embarrassment.”
“She said what needed to be said,” says Altamirano, STEP ’01. “I really appreciated that about Bonnie.”
Tenenbaum’s generosity was deep and broad. She was an ardent supporter of Jewish education and community services-- she helped found South Peninsula Hebrew Day School and Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School. After her son, Josh, became a faculty member at MIT, Tenenbaum began supporting a Jewish school in Cambridge, Mass., that her granddaughter, Abi, attended.
And her involvement with EPAA was truly transformative, says Altamirano. “It is no exaggeration to say that the work of EPAA would not have been possible without Bonnie’s gifts of time and money.”
In addition to being a principal supporter of the school, Tenenbaum also helped underwrite enrichment programs such as Sojourn to the Past, in which students traveled to the Deep South to learn about the civil rights movement. “We often referred to Bonnie as our fairy godmother,” Altamirano says. Tenenbaum covered tuition costs (not to mention dorm supplies) for a number of EPAA students who went on to college.
As large as Tenenbaum’s impact was, Altamirano notes that she will also be remembered for the smaller acts of kindness that distinguished her as a friend. When Altamirano’s twin boys were born prematurely, requiring constant care, bags of fresh fruit and challah began appearing on the family’s doorstep every Friday evening. There was no card to indicate who was responsible for the gift, “but I knew who it was from,” Altamirano says.
In addition to Josh and Abi, Tenenbaum is survived by her husband, Marty; her sisters, Joanne and Ann; and her brothers, Malcolm and Steve.
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