Karen Rattenborg retires after more than three decades at CSU

Karen Rattenborg at the Early Childhood Center, infant-toddler play space dedication

Karen Rattenborg at the Early Childhood Center, infant-toddler play space dedication.

After earning three degrees from Colorado State University and an outstanding career of 29 years of service, Karen Rattenborg retires with emeritus status from her current roles as executive director of the CSU Early Childhood Center and assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.

Deep roots in Colorado State University

Rattenborg (’87, ’91, ’09) started teaching at CSU in 1992, but her time at the university goes back to the early 1980s when she enrolled as an undergraduate and received her B.S. and M.S. in human development and family studies. She also went on to receive her Ph.D. from CSU in education and human resource studies.

When Rattenborg came to CSU, she planned to study music therapy. As part of her training, she was required to take a child development class.

“As I sat in that class my freshman year, a lightbulb went off in my head,” said Rattenborg. “And I knew what I really wanted to study was child development.”

During the second semester of her first year, Rattenborg changed her major to Human Development and Family Studies. The following fall, she completed a practicum at the ECC under the tutelage and mentorship of then ECC director, Barbara McCornack. Flash forward eight years, and the first course Rattenborg taught was child development, the class that originally sparked her passion for the field.

“I have known Karen for over 35 years, as a student, my advisee, an early childhood teacher, and an undergraduate adviser,” said McCornack. “I found Karen to show a genuine, caring respect for each individual she interacted with, whether young child, parent, student, or friend. She has always been a good listener, and her friendly interactions showed a genuine sensitivity to the needs of the other.”

Karen Rattenborg with previous Colorado State University president, Tony Frank.
Karen Rattenborg with previous Colorado State University president and now chancellor, Tony Frank.

Among her accomplishments, Rattenborg has served in various roles including the HDFS coordinator of undergraduate advising and experiential learning and an assistant professor in CSU’s School of Education. Over the years, Rattenborg taught more than 60 sections of undergraduate and graduate classes; traveled the globe, providing technical, logistical, and student support as the global study’s instructional coordinator for Semester at Sea in fall 2018; and explored diverse perspectives of early childhood education and teacher preparation as a Fulbright specialist at Kagawa University in Japan in May 2019.

“Karen is professional, organized, and knowledgeable,” said Donna Gines, a professor in the School of Education who hired Rattenborg for a position in the CSU Teacher Licensure Program. “But Karen is also fun. She’s quick to laugh and always looking for the best in every situation.”

When looking back at her time at CSU, Rattenborg recalls being a participant in the last “College Days” in 1987, teaching at the university during the Spring Creek Flood in 1997, attending Obama’s speeches at the Oval in October 2008 and in the Monfort Quad in October 2012, attending the last football game at Hughes Stadium in 2016, and participating in the ECC’s 90th anniversary celebrations in 2019. Through all these memories and pivotal CSU moments, she knows she’s not yet done with her CSU journey.

The Early Childhood Center, an integral part of Rattenborg

“Every aspect of the ECC’s threefold mission – teaching, research, and service – resonates with me,” said Rattenborg. “I understand the value of training the early childhood workforce in the context of providing children with high quality care and education.”

The ECC is a laboratory school that has been on the CSU campus since 1929, currently located in the historic Washington School building where it moved in 2013 after extensive renovations. Each year, it serves approximately 150 children (ages 6 weeks to 6 years) while simultaneously training more than 120 students from various departments across campus. It also serves as an important site for CSU faculty who are creating knowledge to better understand young children, such as the lunch study conducted by nutrition researchers.

In 2012, Lise Youngblade, current College of Health and Human Sciences dean and then department head of human development and family studies, was working with numerous constituents to spearhead a major change for the ECC. At the time, the center was located in the Gifford building and served approximately 50 children ages three to five. Youngblade was helping get the center moved to the new Washington School location and expanding it to serve three times more children with a broader age range.

“I met Karen in 2006 and quickly came to appreciate her commitment to students and all aspects of their being – academic, emotional, social,” said Youngblade. “Most importantly, I experienced her passion for the youngest students and voracious motivation to both create the best center for early childhood education as well as prepare CSU students in the best possible ways to be early childhood educators.”

To execute the ECC move and Youngblade’s vision, Rattenborg was slated as the ECC executive director, a new position for the center to oversee all aspects of operation, maintenance, and growth.

“It was truly a gift when she applied for the position of Executive Director of the ECC,” said Youngblade. “And our great fortune to hire her into this role where she has served for the past 10 years.”

Over the last decade, Rattenborg has worked to promote optimal environments and experiences for young children by preparing teachers to meet the educational and socio-emotional needs of children.

“Karen brought her magic to developing the ECC into the powerful trifecta it is today,” Yougblade continued, “a program of exceptional care for children and their families; an innovative, interdisciplinary and comprehensive learning environment for CSU students interested in careers in early childhood; and a place for research and discovery about early childhood.”

Leaving a legacy as a donor and an essential piece of the ECC

“The ECC’s role as a laboratory school is so critically important to the future workforce,” said Rattenborg. “Especially at a time right now where we’re really realizing how important early care and education is to the wellbeing of not only children and families, but also to the greater economic good.”

Kim Tobin, vice president for University Advancement, left, presents the Spirit of Philanthropy Award to Karen Rattenborg, right, in 2018.
Kim Tobin, vice president for University Advancement, left, presents the Spirit of Philanthropy Award to Karen Rattenborg, right, in 2018.

Rattenborg has been an integral part of the ECC in multiple roles including a student, a teacher, a parent, an internship supervisor, and also an administrator. It is for this reason she considers her role as a donor to be an important one.

“If you really value something, show it by donating to the cause,” said Rattenborg. “No gift is ever too small. I’ve been donating to CSU for over 20 years, but it really did start out small. I made an effort to donate every year, and over time the amounts and my commitment to supporting the programs grew.”

Rattenborg was recognized in 2018 with the “Spirit of Philanthropy Award.” She has various programs she still donates to and is a major donor to the ECC, a program she said will always be one of her favorites.

“People can’t go to work if they don’t have their children in a safe place,” said Rattenborg. “So, the role of the ECC to train future generations of the workforce is critically important and needs to be supported and maintained.”

Current department head of Human Development and Family Studies, Julie Braungart-Rieker, said Rattenborg was a committed fundraiser who worked closely with the College of Health and Human Science’s development office to secure $1.4 million in donations to the ECC from more than 250 donors. Donors funded several critical projects including a new library, infant and toddler playground, a playground musical garden, as well as a Legacy Endowment supporting the ECC funded by former director Marie Macy.

In addition to fundraising, Rattenborg was a successful grant writer.

“Between 2013 and 2021, Rattenborg received more than $2 million in grant funding for the ECC to support income-eligible families and at-risk children,” said Braungart-Rieker. “These funds serve to make access to childcare services more affordable for families and to increase the retention and graduation rates of CSU student parents.”

The COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges to the ECC and to childcare in general across the nation. Rattenborg’s role morphed to handle center closures, staffing issues, enrollment challenges, ever-changing COVID protocols, and consistent stress management for students, staff, and parents.

“Karen’s behind-the-scenes work during the pandemic has been heroic,” said Braungart-Rieker. “I can’t emphasize enough the sheer strength, determination, persistence, and emotional power she has put into the ECC during a time when childcare is facing so many challenges across the country.”

A dedication to honor Karen Rattenborg

Rattenborg with her husband Greg, Cam the Ram, and former ECC director and donor Marie Macy
Rattenborg with her husband Greg, Cam the Ram, and former ECC director and donor Marie Macy, who passed away in 2020.

Rattenborg serves as vice president on the Board of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County and was a member of the CSU Child Care/Dependent Care Task Force. She has been a long-time active member of Larimer County’s Be Ready Campaign, which has the mission of promoting school readiness in Larimer County, and was instrumental in the collection, analysis, and dissemination of survey data leading to the development of a kindergarten readiness guide in Larimer County. You can view Rattenborg’s bio page for a full list of her accolades.

Upon retirement, Rattenborg’s first plan is to board the World Odyssey to participate in a partial voyage with Semester at Sea.

“I’m going to miss regular interaction with children,” said Rattenborg. “My plan is to continue advocating for children and families through my role on the Board of the Early Childhood Council of Larimer County.”

Rattenborg ends her exemplary career with a quote from the author of Winnie the Pooh, which she said fits perfectly for her time at CSU, the people she’s met, and the experiences she’s had. “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.” -A.A. Milne

To celebrate Rattenborg’s tremendous impact and years of service to the Early Childhood Center, the “Younger Toddler Room” has been dedicated in her honor.

“There aren’t enough words to express my appreciation and heartfelt gratitude for all that Karen has done for HDFS, the College of Health and Human Sciences, CSU, Larimer County, and especially the staff, students, parents, and children at the ECC,” said Braungart-Rieker. “She will be tremendously missed.”

“Karen was delightful to work with,” said McCornack. “We have shared our interests in early childhood education over the years since my retirement, and I feel lucky to be her friend.”

“I am beyond grateful for Karen and all she has done,” said Youngblade. “She is leaving a wonderful legacy in the ECC and quite honestly, this legacy is the foundation for the future. I know I speak for so many – colleagues, students, families, donors – in wishing her the very best in her well-earned retirement, but also in saying how very much she will be missed.”

If you would like to give to the ECC, please visit the ECC Donor Page. Your gift may qualify for the Colorado Child Care Contribution Credit, which may allow Colorado taxpayers a 50 percent tax credit on state income taxes.

The Early Childhood Center is in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.