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Remembering Liz Quackenbush: Foundation started to share her educational beliefs and values

Liz Quackenbush's death left her friends, fellow teachers and the students she taught traumatized and distraught. Some said her death changed them forever, leaving psychological scars that will never go away.

Liz Quackenbush
The founders of the Liz Quackenbush Foundation, from left, Brooke Galbreath, Lori Nelson and Caly Christofferson. Their friendship with Liz dates back to their teenage years as students at Willow Creek Middle School.
Contributed
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ROCHESTER, Minn. – On the day before Liz Quackenbush’s death, Brooke Galbreath, a Rochester woman who had been friends with Quackenbush since grade school, sent her a meme that showed two happy old ladies, buddies for 84 years, moving into a nursing home together.

“That’s us!” Quackenbush replied.

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Though Galbreath lived in Rochester and Quackenbush New Orleans at the time, the exchange spoke of their underlying confidence in the future. It conveyed the belief that life and their friendship held future adventures. For Quackenbush was a believer that life was nothing if not an adventure.

It turned out to be their last correspondence together. Two days later, on March 3, 2021, Quackenbush’s body was found in her New Orleans house by investigators after being stabbed multiple times with an ax.

Within days, investigators zeroed in on Preston Higgs, a former Rochester resident and former boyfriend with whom she had shared the house in New Orleans, as the primary suspect.

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U.S. Marshals tracked down and arrested him after a four-month manhunt on a Greyhound bus in Lake County, Indiana. He was extradited to New Orleans, where he is set to stand to trial on murder charges.

Her death left her friends, fellow teachers and the students she taught traumatized and distraught. Some said her death changed them forever, leaving psychological scars that will never go away.

They have since sought to resurrect her spirit and her ideas as a teacher.

Not the last word

In the months following, two of Liz’s close friends — Galbreath and Lori Nelson — began exploring ways to keep the focus on the positive aspects of her life. Both had been classmates of Liz’s dating back to Willow Creek Middle School. They were later joined by Caly Christofferson, another Willow Creek alum and friend of Liz’s.

Liz Quackenbush
Liz Quackenbush, who taught at the Rochester Alternative Learning Center. Quackenbush was murdered last year after moving to New Orleans.
Contributed / Katie Sloan

All three were guided by a determination that the profane act against their friend should not be the last word on what they viewed as a truly authentic and original human being.

As an educator, Liz was an innovator with distinct, even radical views on what it took to be an effective teacher.

Thus was born the Liz Quackenbush Foundation , a vehicle for keeping alive and sustaining her memory as well as her education values and beliefs.

“I think it's something that Liz would have done. She would have supported this,” said Christofferson, one of the three founders. “We don’t want to let go of her memory and her spirit and the impact she had on her students.”

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Quackenbush didn’t immediately aspire to be teacher, although those around her noticed her skill in connecting with young people. In college, she majored in landscape architecture and design. Later she earned a master's degree in education.

By the time she arrived at Rochester Public Schools' Alternative Learning Center in 2014, Liz was in her early 30s and looking to make her mark in education.

There, she met Katie Sloan. Sloan had been an elementary teacher for nearly a decade. Liz was in her first year. But they shared similar educational ideas. They wanted to shake things up.

“Liz more than anything wanted to do something radical in education,” said Sloan, who team-taught with Liz at the ALC.

Liz Quackenbush
Katie Sloan, left, and Liz Quackenbush, who taught together at the Rochester Alternative Learning Center. Quackenbush was murdered last year after moving to New Orleans.
Contributed / Katie Sloan

Liz was a believer in experiential learning. She thought that growth happens through experience, and that the difference between surviving and thriving in life depended on cultivating experiences and hobbies. And the outdoors and nature, she believed, was a gateway to those experiences.

They also believed that the old educational playbook wouldn’t work with ALC students, who struggled in traditional academic settings and lacked confidence in school. So together the duo created an educational experience called “The Green Thumb Initiative.”

The idea was to introduce ALC students to gardening, not simply as an exercise in planting and sowing, but as a way of teaching real-world lessons in a range of academic subjects.

There were few restraints on what could be taught. Lessons in math and English or more complicated topics such as grant-writing and food justice could be conveyed to students through gardening — and more forcefully than in a traditional class that many ALC students found stultifying and arid.

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“So, instead of doing a math problem on paper that shows the area and perimeter of a garden bed, let’s just go out and build it,” Sloan said.

Motivating students

Sloan said students who responded positively to this new way of teaching discovered an “intrinsic motivation” to attend school. Many students showed personal growth that was “off the charts.” And those who stuck with the program “were able to graduate.”

To those who observed her, it was obvious that Quackenbush possessed a gift. She was not a typical educator. With her funky hairstyles and multitude of body tattoos, she was a “unique person,” said Galbreath. “She danced to the beat of her own drum.”

If ALC students didn’t fit into a mainstream classroom, well, Quackenbush wasn’t a typical mainstream teacher.

“She was the most authentic person I’ve ever met in my life,” Sloan said. “She was the most consistent. She really believed that getting kids outside was our No. 1 priority to help them develop skills and hobbies that would serve them for the rest of their lives.”

Liz Quackenbush
Katie Sloan, left, and Liz Quackenbush, who taught together at the Rochester Alternative Learning Center. Quackenbush was murdered last year after moving to New Orleans.
Contributed / Katie Sloan

An adventurer, Liz loved to travel and embark on spontaneous cross-country road trips. When she was younger, she lived for a period in Colorado and Oregon. She traveled to Africa.

After working five years at the ALC, Liz began to feel a need to “change it up a bit.” Even before settling on New Orleans as the next destination in her life, she told Sloan that she was moving — somewhere.

Liz had once told Sloan that she didn’t always want to be the most unique person in the room. And in Rochester, she typically was.

“She told me she was moving before she even had a destination in mind,” Sloan said. “We talked about it for a year before she actually moved. And the first phase of the conversation was, “where should I go? I'm looking for something different.’”

“It wasn’t New Orleans that drew her in. It was that sense of, ‘I did something really cool here (at the ALC). And I want to see if I can keep that momentum.'”

'We'd always be in touch'

Even though her friends in Rochester were heartbroken to see her move, they realized it was an essential part of her personality to seek out new adventures and experiences — just as she taught.

“I was really sad when she left,” Galbreath said. “But I also was really excited for her to go on another adventure, because I knew we’d always be in touch.”

Her death shattered her friends.

Liz Quackenbush
Brooke Galbreath, left, and Liz Quackenbush. Quackenbush was murdered last year after moving to New Orleans.
Contributed

Sloan said she has sought therapy after Quackenbush’s death to cope with the crushing grief. She’s doing better now than a year ago. As time has gone on, she has also been able to push through the darkness to celebrate Liz’s life as well as mourn her death. A day doesn’t go by where she doesn’t think about her.

An official from the New Orleans District Attorney’s Office has told Liz’s mom, Diane Holland, that it is still awaiting DNA testing of blood evidence found in Higgs' car. If there is no plea agreement, a trial on murder charges could take place by the end of this year or early next year.

Building a foundation

Meanwhile, Quackenbush’s friends continue the work of building up her foundation. The second annual Liz Quackenbush Golf Tournament is set for Sept. 10 at Northern Hills Golf Course . The first one raised about $12,000, Christofferson said.

So far, foundation money has been used to support a variety of real-life lessons for ALC students: An apple orchard trip at Sekapp Orchard and an outdoor adventure at Wilderness Inquiry in Chester Woods in Rochester.

Funding also supported the purchase of a cricut machine for Byron High School graphic design students to use. Lindsey Boettcher, a visual arts teacher, said the machine will give students hands-on experience in making and transferring logos to mugs, T-shirts and business cards.

quackenbush.jpg
Mandi Hyres, left, and Liz Quackenbush.
Contributed

Boettcher, who went to Mayo High School and played on the soccer team with Quackenbush, recalled Liz as a “one-of-a-kind person.” She said the foundation reached out to her to donate the money so students could have the kind of experiential learning that Liz believed in.

“Giving those kids a different way of learning besides just out of a book is really important,” Boettcher said.

Sloan said she has gained comfort since Liz’s death from meeting and getting to know many of Liz's friends. Last June, a get-together was held in Texas where Liz’s mom lives to celebrate what would have been Liz’s 41st birthday. It brought Liz friends from across the country.

And all of them, she discovered, were quirky and unique just like Liz.

“I feel like Liz’s legacy to me was this tribe of badass, cool, awesome, woman warriors that just have been such a support to me,” Sloan said. “And I am so grateful for it.”

She said she was also grateful for the foundation, because it provided a means to perpetuate what Liz stood for as a teacher and a person.

“She had really found her stride in life (at the ALC) and was the happiest that she had ever been, the most fulfilled, the most driven because that was my experience as well. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel that excited about education again,” Sloan said.

“Again, I hope I do, but it will be hard to top."

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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