When MaryEllen Elia worked as a social studies teacher in the Sweet Home district, the national push for standardized testing had yet to begin and educators had great latitude over what happened in their classrooms.
“The reality then was that teachers had a lot of flexibility to be creative,” she told a group of Sweet Home teachers on Thursday. “That is not the case now.”
It was a candid admission from New York’s new education commissioner, who is also an advocate for high standards, testing and teacher evaluations.
But while much has changed during Elia’s rise from teacher four decades ago to New York’s top education leader, she said that one thing remains consistent – the passion for helping students that she cultivated in Sweet Home.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to be a teacher forever,” she said of her time in the district.
Returning to where she started her career in 1970 was at the top of the to-do list when Elia started her new job Monday.
She had barely made it out of the Sweet Home Middle School parking lot shortly before 8 a.m. Thursday when teachers and other staff members trickled outside to greet her on the sidewalk.
Her visit was brief – about three hours – packed with back to back meetings with School Board members, parents and teachers.
Squeezed in were impromptu hallway reunions with some from her past. There were former colleagues, parents of former students and former students themselves, some of whom went on to teach for the district.
“I’m very exited to be back here,” she said. “It’s my old haunt.”
Her meetings also included a surprise appearance by her early mentor Ronald Young, a former administrator who has since retired from the district.
Born in Rochester, Elia grew up in Lewiston and then attended Daemen College, the University at Buffalo and Buffalo State College before working in Sweet Home for 16 years.
At that time, she thought she would spend her entire career in the district, ultimately retiring from the classroom.
But when her husband got a job in Florida, the family moved to Hillsborough County, where Elia served in a number of roles before becoming superintendent.
Ultimately, her career brought her back home.
“It’s a very difficult job Mrs. Elia has wandered into,” said Sweet Home Superintendent Anthony J. Day. “But she wandered into it right back where she started.”
Although Thursday’s visit was short, she promised a return in the near future.
“I came from Sweet Home,” she said. “You’re on my mind.”