The Continuing Education Of Ellen Israel

Ellen Israel loves being head of a school where “learning happens in a pure way.” There are no standardized tests; virtually no grades or homework. Nearly every student wants to be there. Each classroom is “filled with joy.”

That utopian version of education exists right here in Westport. It goes on during the day, in the evening and throughout the summer. It doesn’t get much press, but several thousand people a year participate.

It’s Westport’s continuing education program, and Israel is the new director. She wants everyone to know: It’s not just “night school” for bridge and knitting anymore.

Ellen Israel, Westport’s energetic new director of continuing education.

Continuing ed encompasses summer enrichment classes in animation, coding, culinary and sports. There are summer theater productions (this year: “Godspell” and “Seussical.”)  A few students take make-up classes in science and math; others want to free up space for courses in the academic year.

Continuing ed also includes after-school classes in areas like chess and rocketry. Off-site programs are run in conjunction with a Pilates studio and restaurants.

“We’re busy and active,” Israel says. “And our goal is to make continuing ed even more active and vibrant.”

Just a month into her new job, she’s still figuring out what works, and what the community needs. She looks forward to partnering with other town organizations, public and private.

“Culinary camp” is one of continuing ed’s most popular summer courses.

Her learning curve won’t be too steep, though. Israel is a native Westporter. A proud Staples High School graduate (Class of 1984), she went on to Tufts as an art history major.

Her path to continuing ed was not straight. But, she says, “it all makes sense now.”

From age 16 to post-college, she was a graphic designer. But living in San Francisco during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, she suddenly realized “I could do more to make the world a better place than designing corporate brochures.”

She joined the League of Women Voters in that city, doing everything from answering phones and event planning to creating the annual voters’ guide. It was a fantastic learning experience.

She also met Mark Bieler there. He’d graduated a year before her at Staples, but they connected 3,000 miles from Westport. Four years later he proposed. They came back east — he for business school, she to work for the Boston Children’s Museum in corporate membership. That’s where she learned about finance.

Then came kids; a move to Weston; a master’s degree at Fairfield University; jack-of-all-trades work with the Connecticut Writing Project (teaching, writing, curriculum development, budgeting). Israel turned that 2-week workshop for teachers into a summer-long series of camps, adding workshops that focused on students from high-need districts.

Earlier this year, Israel saw a posting for Westport continuing ed director. She thought, “This is it! It incorporates everything I’ve ever done.”

Now, with a staff of 3 “fantastic, incredibly knowledgeable, super-efficient women” — Joanne Samela, Tina Granata and Sheila Gallanty — Israel is rockin’ a formerly sleepy portfolio.

“We run a teeny school district,” she notes. (And a self-sustaining one. The Board of Education provides no funds for continuing ed.)

She looks forward to getting more of Westport’s “most valuable resource” — its teachers — involved. Israel’s goal is to “give them a venue to share their passions — whether it’s inside or outside of their specialty, after school and evenings.”

She hopes too to tap into the artists, writers, businesspeople, entrepreneurs, tech experts and professors who make up this town. Even a one-hour lecture is fine. Israel wants to involve everyone.

“I’ve got an Excel spreadsheet as long as your arm” of ideas, Israel says. “Tell people to call me if they want to help!”

Done. If you’d like to suggest a class, offer yourself as a teacher, or learn more about current and future offerings, call 203-341-1209. Email conted@westport.k12.ct.us. Or click here.

But don’t be put off by the somewhat stodgy website. Jazzing that up is on Ellen Israel’s to-do list too.

(Hat tip: Cecily Gans)

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