Early in her teaching career, Shari Gelman was asked to work as a substitute at a Montgomery County preschool for children with developmental, intellectual and cognitive disabilities. She was nervous, she recalled, and told the director she had no experience with special-needs kids.
“Hey, they are children,” the director said. Mrs. Gelman soon reported for work.
“I went in, and the first day I was there I was absolutely blown away,” she once told an interviewer. “There were several children with autism — although we were not calling it this very often at that time — and a couple with Down syndrome and a mixture of disabilities. I came home, and I was devastated in terms of how parents handled this at home and how difficult it must be.”
At the time, there was a lack of such programs in the public school system — and almost none that offered learning opportunities for children who had multiple disabilities. It would be at least 20 years before federal law required schools to provide appropriate special education and related services for children with disabilities.
For Mrs. Gelman, who died Tuesday at age 88, working at the nursery school was the spark that led her to start what is now the Ivymount School, one of the earliest and best-regarded Washington area educational centers for students with complex learning, language, physical or emotional disabilities.
Mrs. Gelman started the school in 1961 in the educational building at Christ Lutheran Church in Bethesda. She called it the Christ Church Child Center, and she was the sole staff member, serving in a dual role as teacher and director. There was one student and his educational aide.
Under her direction, the school gradually enlisted a wide array of specialists, including behavioral, language, art, music and dance specialists, to meet the complex needs of its students.
“Kids could get everything in one place, including speech, occupational and physical therapy,” Lillian Davis, the school’s former assistant director, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
“If there was a group that didn’t have their needs being met, that is where we could really be of service,” Mrs. Gelman said in a 2010 history of the school.
Over time, local public school systems began referring special-needs students to Christ Church Child Center. To meet the increasing demand, the school had to borrow space from several other Montgomery County churches before the program was consolidated into one building and given a permanent home at the old Georgetown Hill Elementary School site in Rockville in 1985. It was renamed Ivymount.
“I always thought we were on the cutting edge. Lots of times we would originate programs that did not exist and I think other places were playing catchup,” Mrs. Gelman said in the school history. “Many times, I think we were one of the first to develop these kinds of programs.”
The school expanded its programming to meet the constantly changing needs of its growing student population and eventually increased the student age limit from 12 to 21.
“The teachers here look at the children as individuals,” Dorothy Burger, a mother of a student at the school, once told The Post. “They make the program work for the child rather than have the child fit into the program.”
By the time Mrs. Gelman retired in 1997, the school had grown to 140 students and more than 100 staff members. More than 1,500 students have graduated from Ivymount since its establishment.
The school twice received the Blue Ribbon, the highest academic honor the U.S. Department of Education can bestow on a school. Mrs. Gelman also received The Post’s Distinguished Education Leadership Award in 1991.
“Shari was one of the most empathetic people I have ever met. She would feel what the kids were feeling and what the parents were feeling,” Davis told The Post in a recent interview. “I don’t think she ever met a kid she didn’t like and couldn’t help.”
Shari Miriam Einfrank was born Dec. 30, 1925, in Passaic, N.J. She was a 1947 graduate of New Jersey State Teachers College at Jersey City, now New Jersey City University. In 1957, she received a master’s degree in human development from the University of Maryland.
She served on the board of the Jewish Foundation for Group Homes and numerous summer programs and recreational programs for children with disabilities. She chaired the special needs committee of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville and was a member of the Advisory Board of Potomac Community Resources.
Her husband of 66 years, Robert Gelman, died in 2013. Survivors include two children, Ona Bunce of Bethesda and Morris Gelman of Falls Church; and two grandsons.
Mrs. Gelman, a longtime Bethesda resident, died at a continuing care center in Bethesda of complications of lymphoma, said her daughter.
Her impressions the first day of substitute teaching would stay with her and motivate her career educating students with disabilities. As she recalled in 2010, “I woke up the next day, and said, ‘If I’m not going to do it, who is going to do it?’ ”