Early Education “Rock Star”

June 29, 2017

Early Education “Rock Star”

Stoler Early Childhood Education Leader Ilene Meister Prepares for Her Next Act  

Ilene MeisterOn the heels of an incredible 30 years as an educator and then Director of the JCC’s Stoler Early Childhood Education Center, Ilene Meister is set to reignite her career as a top educator in the region.  To those who know her well, that is hardly a surprise.

“Ilene Meister is a rock star,” says Dale Busch, the JCC’s former Executive Vice President from 1994-2011.

“Ilene’s mind is so vibrant and creative,” says Dale. “You give her the seed of a concept and she runs with it. She’s so passionate about kids growing and learning in different ways.  She knows how children learn and is always looking for new opportunities. She has always nurtured her staff and families. Parents have always been able to call her at home – there is no clock for her. She has all taken responsibility for the needs of the children in our school.”

Emily Peisach-Stern, Senior Director of J Camps, concurs.  Emily worked with Ilene for many years. “Ilene cares about the Jewish community and has enriched the lives of countless children. She makes sure families feel comfortable and that their children are under the best care and will learn and grow at the JCC. She also works to make sure that children of all abilities have the support they need and can meet with success in school. It is so important to her that every child has the opportunity to learn” 

Janene Malamud, the Stoler’s Health Educator says, “What I like best about Ilene is that she says YES. Yes to new ideas, yes to projects, yes to out of the box thinking… she is a risk taker when it comes to education and is always looking for innovative ideas to further opportunities and experiences for children.”

Lots of what occurs in the classroom may not be remembered but all of our laughter, kindheartedness, praise and positive actions will last a lifetime.

Ilene’s final day at the JCC was June 30, 2017; J News caught up with Ilene for an interview.

JNews: Ilene, what are your initial plans, after leaving the Stoler ECE?

Ilene: Well, I am starting my next act, my encore.  There are over 80 million baby boomers in their 50s and 60s, who are dynamic, healthy, and energetic, and we want to be engaged.  I still want to tutor (reading, math, SATs) as I have always done, but now I have the freedom to make choices and explore new opportunities too. I can put myself first. I have too much energy to not put it to use. I still want to make a difference. 

JNews: What have been some of your guiding principles as director of the Stoler ECE?

Ilene: As a director, my priority has always been to give every young child the opportunity to have a preschool experience in an enriched environment, where they feel safe, happy, and comfortable throughout the day and where each child can develop independence, confidence, and a feeling of self-worth as an individual and as a member of a group.  Next to home, school is the single most important force in shaping the child’s self-concept, which provides the teacher with an understanding and the power to influence the conduct of children.

The early years of life when we work with children are the most critical in forming their opinion of themselves.  I am fortunate to have so many wonderful teachers who know that each day is an opportunity to create a memory of school as a great place. All children should have teachers who believe in them and help them learn through play and discovery-based experiences, develop empathy for others, and apply problem-solving strategies to social conflicts.  Our goal has always been to provide a positive experience for each child by designing an individualized plan that teachers can put into action and modify if need be. Appropriate early intervention has proven key in helping children with special issues do great and even giving them the opportunity to catch up to their peers. 

JNews: You have an incredible range of experience, how did you get your start in the field of education and how did you come to the JCC?

I graduated with a Bachelor of Science with Honors from the University of Maryland, and started working as a teacher in Carroll County.  While working I continued my education at Johns Hopkins receiving a Masters of Science degree and becoming a certified reading specialist.

After several years of teaching, my husband and I started a family, and I was a stay-at-home mom by day, and I tutored in the evening and on weekends.  When my third child was four years old, I choose the JCC preschool for his preschool experience.   When I went to enroll him, Sharyn Stein, who was the Director at the time, offered me a job. At first I told her no because I thought that with my youngest in school I would finally have some time for myself.  She was very persuasive so I thought I’ll do it for one year.  I did it, and I loved it!  The children were like sponges.   I remember teaching them a unit about the heart and having a medical school graduation as a culminating activity.  I was hooked, but because of my older children’s schedule, I decided I could not work the same hours so I thought I would have to end my short career at the JCC, but then Sharyn offered me a more flexible schedule, and I became the science specialist, which gave me the chance to work with more children.  After two years of teaching science, my own children’s schedules once again would limit my flexibility.  Then I was offered a position as an educational therapist which I loved even more than teaching so from 1989-1997, I had the opportunity to work with all the teachers, parents, and children.  I created curriculum and developing plans of actions for children who needed an individualized educational plan. 

Then in 1997, I assumed the position of Director of Early Childhood Education.  What an amazing twenty years!  I have been so fortunate to work with so many incredible educators.  Together we developed new programming and devised innovative ways to shape learning environments, share information, engage young children in learning, and involve families in activities, which integrate Jewish values, holidays, nutrition, and physical fitness.  Professional development has focused on helping staff provide the skills, challenges, opportunities, and encouragement that help the children meet with success.  In doing so, the children have experienced growth in self-esteem and a readiness for academic learning.  My goal has always been to meet each child’s individual needs and to ensure that each child has the opportunity to reach his/her potential. 

JNews: What have been some of the highlights of your time here?

Ilene: There have been so many! I will share with you the first two that come to mind.

First, in 2002, we started a program developed by the JCC Association called An Ethical Start, a curriculum based on passages from Pirkei Avot, a classic Jewish text.  Drawing from the rich moral teachings of Judaism our goal was to show children ways to turn ethical values into ethical behavior and to bring these values to the children and families whom we serve.  We were able to take real life situations and apply a uniquely Jewish perspective.  In doing we built a community of learners and inspired Jewish journeys. 

Then in 2010, thanks to the generosity of the Rosenbloom Foundation, we developed the Healthy Choices curriculum, an integrated approach to teach and raise awareness of the importance of healthy food choices and physical activity.  As a result of the OM ECE’s participation in the Let’s Move initiative and the Healthy Choices program, the Owings Mills Early Childhood department was recognized as one of the top twelve schools in the country by Michelle Obama and Kathleen Sebelius, former United States Secretary of Health and Human Services. The program was again recognized in 2013 as a Best in Practice Early Education Center by the Center for Disease Control and Penn State University and was chosen as an online training site for teachers from all 50 states.  We worked with the CDC and the Better Kid Care Program to create a video for its educational system to be accessed by early childhood educators in 26 countries.  In conjunction with its Healthy Choices curriculum, we joined forces with parents to create a Healthy Snack Program so that children would have the opportunity to explore a variety of fruits and vegetables throughout the week, and we expanded the Lunch Program by teaming with Me Latte and Healthy Choices and to create child-friendly lunches in a family-style setting at affordable prices. We also planned several family programs during the year integrating Judaism, nutrition, and physical activities like our annual End of the Year Picnic so that our families develop a sense of community and happy memories involving food and fitness.

JNews: What are some of your fondest memories of your time here at the J?

Ilene: There is an expression, “Nothing lasts forever” but it is one saying with which I disagree. We all have memories that last forever. I have spoken with so many parents whose children started at the JCC when they were as young as two years old and who are now adults.  Over and over again, I hear from parents and from their adult children how the impact of our actions resonates forever. Lots of what occurs in the classroom may not be remembered but all of our laughter, kindheartedness, praise and positive actions will last a lifetime. My last day of work at the JCC will be June 30, but my memories will also last forever. I will remember all the wonderful moments and some of the sad ones too. I will remember all the time, energy, and devotion the teachers and I have given to the school and to the children.  I will remember and cherish so many of my JCC colleagues, all the amazing teachers, parents and children whom I have been so fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet and serve.  

Friends, Ilene would love to hear from you; send her a message at asmjamcjm@aol.com.

Photo credit: Jewish Times

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