A passionate and compassionate educator, Ellen Maiseloff likes solving puzzles. Even as a student teacher, she chose the path that would challenge her beyond the standard curriculum – to work with children with learning disabilities.

“Every child has a unique ability to learn and the potential for success,” Ellen explains, “I like to think of the learning process as the opportunity to unlock barriers to learning and empower students. I love finding the way to reach students and learning from them what could be, that special charm, that unexpected strategy or the key to opening the doors for them.”

With a career in special education spanning nearly four decades, Ellen Maiseloff has helped thousands of children succeed both in secular and Jewish schools throughout the community and beyond. Now at the top of her game as Director of Federation’s Opening the Doors (OTD) program since 2007, Ellen supervises a staff of 46 special educators, para educators, classroom assistants and professionals serving nearly 1,100 children a year in 26 Jewish day and congregational schools in Metro Detroit.

Opening the Doors Para Educator, Lexie Sittsamer with Allie Jacobs

Opening the Doors Para Educator, Lexie Sittsamer with Allie Jacobs

Founded in 1995 by Anita Naftaly, Federation’s Opening the Doors program has a long history of setting the bar for inclusion both in the classroom and in the community at large. With the expansion and innovation of its services in recent years, the program has won national recognition and accolades including the prestigious endorsement of Slingshot, a leading resource guide and a prominent funding source for Jewish communal life supported by the Ruderman Family Foundation.

Among her colleagues, her students and the many families whose lives she’s gently touched and changed, Ellen is well recognized as a mentor and leader. In November 2014, Ellen will be named the 25th recipient of the prestigious “Berman Award for Outstanding Professional Leadership.” In 1988, Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman established this award to recognize the career achievement of an outstanding professional employed by the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit, its family of agencies and other Detroit-area Jewish social service organizations. According to their time-honored tradition, the Bermans themselves will present the award at the November meeting of the Federation Board of Trustees.

A graduate of Michigan State University, with a B.A. in Cognitive Impairment and M.A. in Learning Disabilities, Ellen started her teaching career with 9th-12th grade students at Troy Athens High School in Troy, Michigan. Working as a special education consultant, then promoted to Department Head, she honed her skills in building trust with parents and teachers, advocating for her students and managing the myriad details of customized lesson plans for children with diverse learning styles. “I had 25 students to track, each with their own classes and daily assignments,” she recalls. “My individualized curricula could fill 11 file cabinets a year, but I loved it.”

Ever analytical and thorough, to this day Ellen describes teaching as the joy of positive feedback. “What intrigued me was all the different ways children could look at things. I would study how each student related and reacted, then tweak the material, look for a different tool or adapt an assignment to help the student break through and succeed.”

From secular education to Jewish education

As her family grew with three children, Ellen left the rigors of high school special education to work for a brief time as a tutor and college adviser to student teachers. In 1996, she was recruited by Anita Naftaly to join Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education as a special educator consultant for the newly established Opening the Doors program, and later as Program Assistant.

Asked how special education has changed since she first entered the field, Ellen reflects, “Honestly, it’s always been a field where you have to advocate for your students and work hard to adapt to the needs of the schools as well. Today, anything that impacts learning is identified as a special need. And, the spectrum of need has rapidly grown and diversified. As a special educator, you have to be patient. You have to be positive. You have to build relationships. Take small steps, one at a time with each child.”

Reinforcing lessons in Hebrew on the iPa

Reinforcing lessons in Hebrew on the iPad: Opening the Doors at Hillel Day School

Finding new challenges: the greater the need

Since its inception, Opening the Doors has been a highly collaborative initiative in the Detroit Jewish community, coordinating with ongoing services to families — as well as professional development and educational programs partnering with JVS, Jewish Family Service, Kadima, JARC, Friendship Circle, the JCC and community mental health professionals.

As Ellen sees it, special education is a holistic process. “In my book, ‘inclusion’ means everybody is in. Beyond the classroom, our goal is to open doors to the community, through outreach, professional development seminars, community programs, and initiatives such as our “Madrichim” Leadership Institute where we empower teens with knowledge and skills as ‘shadows’ and special assistants in the classroom to help children fully participate in a Jewish education with their peers.”

Opening the Doors continues to gain following, as well as funding. With a grant from The Jewish Fund, the Opening the Doors now partners with JARC to enhance professional training and provide a broader spectrum of services and full-time classroom assistance to students with diverse needs and abilities in Jewish day schools. The recent $1 million endowment from the Vera and Joseph Dresner Foundation has opened new opportunities for OTD to increase capacity of vital programs and services. A new pilot program – B’Yadenu (In Our Hands) funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation out of Boston — will soon launch in Detroit to enrich programs for professional development in day schools.

As chief administrator, fundraiser and cheerleader for Opening the Doors, Ellen Maiseloff continues to grow the program, always drawing from her training and natural instincts as a special educator. “Jewish education is a gift for life, and it is a joy to work with families to raise awareness, advocate for their children and turn their dream of a Jewish education into a reality. My motivation comes from each unique child. Our students inspire us to embrace their challenges, promote their talents, celebrate their achievements and take pride in their full engagement – along with their peers —  in our community.”

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Past Recipients of the Berman Award

Past Recipients of the Mandell L. and Madeleine H. Berman Award for Outstanding Professional Service include: Harlene Appelman, Sharon Alterman, Michael Berke, Linda Blumberg, Rabbi Avraham (Avi) Cohen, Marion Freedman, David Gad-Harf, Cindy Hughey, Allan “Geli” Gelfond, Jonah Geller, Barbra Giles, Rabbi Judah Isaacs, Carol Kaczander, Marcia Goldsmith Kamin, Joyce Keller, Nira Lev, Anita Naftaly, Barbara Nurenberg, Margo Parr, Rhoda Raderman, Carol Rosenberg, Sylvia Serwin, Miriam Starkman and Ellen Yashinsky Chute

Coming Up! Anita Naftaly Family Circle Conference Presents Nurturing Resilience, Motivation and Hope: Searching for Islands of Competence, featuring Dr. Robert Brooks. Sunday, October 26. Details here.
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