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Remembering Nancy J. Ellsworth, Longtime Educator and Advocate for Students with Disabilities

Nancy Jane Ellsworth, Ed.D., a retired associate professor of special education at Fordham and a staunch supporter for individuals with special needs, died peacefully in her family’s home in Ladera, California, on Dec. 11, 2020, after a short hospitalization and in-home hospice care due to kidney problems. She was 88. 

“She was a strong advocate for students with disabilities and was persistent in getting things done right if she believed in it. Her spirited advocacy, commitment, and unyielding persistence left a strong impact on those who were her students and mentees,” wrote her colleagues at the Graduate School of Education, Chun Zhang, Ph.D., and Abigail Harris, Ph.D., in a joint statement. “She will be dearly remembered by many of her students, colleagues, and those whose lives have been touched because of her work.”

From 1989 to 2007, Ellsworth taught scores of Fordham students how to serve children with disabilities in the classroom. She recognized the importance of collaborating with school psychologists and counselors, and she encouraged research related to the assessment of learning and methods for teaching literacy, said her colleagues. 

Ellsworth advocated for individuals with special needs at home and abroad. In New York, she worked closely with the state education department and national professional organizations to earn accreditation for special education programs; on a citywide level, she worked to improve bilingual public school education by expanding training for special education teachers. She also worked with special education teachers in China and co-authored a 2007 journal article that examines the country’s development of the special education field. 

“I remember Dr. Nancy Ellsworth as an insightful and stabilizing influence during a time of significant transition … in the special education field,” her colleague John Houtz, Ph.D., professor of educational psychology at Fordham, wrote in an email. He noted that her expertise had an impact at a time when the special ed field was in need of new programs and facing new state accreditation standards. “Her years at GSE were marked by hard work and significant problem solving. She was a favorite of students and a model and mentor to our next generation of faculty.” 

Ellsworth was born in August 1932 in San Marino, California, to Larry and Jane Hood. She graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in education, with a focus on English and social studies. 

She began working at the World Affairs Council, a San Francisco-based nonprofit, and went on to teach middle and high school students in the Bay Area, where she realized her lifelong passion as an educator. In 1969, she married Robert T. Ellsworth, Jr., and moved to Bedford, New York. The couple enjoyed camping, whitewater paddling, and the performing arts together. 

Over the next two decades, she earned a master’s degree in education, specializing in reading and learning disabilities, and a doctorate in education, with a focus on special education, both from Columbia University. 

In 2005, Ellsworth returned to her native California to live closer to her family. As a retiree, she was an active member of her local bridge, book, and film groups. In her final months, she spent most of her time with her family. Her daughter, Susan Flierl, recalled making morning coffee and breakfast for her mother and watching The Queen’s Gambit and The Crown together, often with the family dog, Cooper, lying at her mother’s side. 

“Nancy was blessed with a full, active, and independent life through her 88th birthday,” Flierl wrote in an email. “Although last year was challenging due to the pandemic, the silver lining was that we had more time than ever together. We formed a social bubble, and she came over for dinner most evenings. For her birthday, I drove with her out to the California coast that she loved.” 

Predeceased by her husband, Robert in 1998, Ellsworth is survived by her children, Carol Ellsworth and Alex Sturgeon (Princess) of Kansas City, Missouri; Susan Flierl (Markus) of Ladera, California; stepdaughters, Linda Ellsworth of Tempe, Arizona, and Nancy Swenson (Larry) of Heath, Texas; and two grandchildren, Andreas and Sofia Flierl.

Ellsworth’s family is hosting a virtual event to commemorate her life on Saturday, March 20 at 2 p.m. EST. Members of the Fordham community can reach out to [email protected] if they are interested in attending. 


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