Shelly Dorfman was two years old when she came out of the closet. Until then, a closet with a window was her bedroom in her family’s small Philadelphia apartment. Ironically, for a woman who would later become an accomplished and innovative literacy specialist, she had few books as a child.
But her extended family on “the street” included teachers who served as role models and who set the stage for what would ultimately be Shelly’s passion in life.
“When I struggled with reading as a sixth-grader, it was, once again, a teacher who inspired me to learn,” she said.
Following the then-traditional cultural pattern, she married her high school sweetheart at 19 and had her first of three children at 20. She took a fork in the road, however, as the feminist movement began to gain steam and Shelly started taking night classes at Temple University to work towards a bachelor’s degree. Eighteen years later, she earned her diploma the same year her marriage ended.
By then, the woman who started her life in a closet in a small apartment had, through a successful family business , moved into an upscale neighborhood within five miles of where she grew up. She mustered up her courage and passion for literacy and began her quest at an elementary school. There she took her clinical knowledge and blended it with creative and innovative practices in arts education to create a new formula for success while earning a master’s degree in the psychology of reading.
As a indication of her showmanship and flair for the arts, Shelly was named Community Calendar Coordinator for Comcast’s first program on its Community Access Network in the early 80s. One of its hallmarks was Shelly riding on an elephant and going up in a hot air balloon.
Yet, this woman is clearly full of tenacity, not hot air.
A series of honors and awards followed as Shelly demonstrated her talents and expertise in leadership and educational administration. Meanwhile, she broadened her knowledge and experience during summers at prestigious programs in New York City including the Guggenheim Museum’s Learning to Read Through the Arts, the Metropolitan Opera and the Lincoln Center Institute.
Shelly seems particularly proud of her work as executive director of the Institute for the Arts in Education.
“One of the highlights was a partnership with the School District of Philadelphia to implement a four-year $1.4 million U.S. Department of Education grant. This brought arts as text to 2,500 lowest performing and poorest middle school students. The goal was to raise standardized test scores by five points but we raised scores by 14-16 points, improving attendance and lessening disruptive behavior. It was sensational,” she said.
Today, in her middle 70s, Shelly continues her work in Sarasota, Florida with a variety of non-profits dedicated to literacy.
This passion, coupled with her family’s well-being, is what she seems to treasure most in life and what constitutes her personal — and vibrant — formula for success after 60.
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