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Elia comes home after success, controversy in Florida

ALBANY – One month after being named Florida’s “superintendent of the year” by her peers in December, MaryEllen Elia was booted from her job in a 4-3 vote that stirred debate there and nationally as education reformers rallied to her defense.

Now Elia – born in Rochester but raised in Lewiston – is coming home as the first woman to take the helm of one of the largest school systems in the country. She will be paid $250,000 as New York State education commissioner.

It’s a move that seemed unlikely when she began her career as a teacher at Sweet Home High School four decades ago.

“In the 1970s, you had two options if you were a woman,” said Elia, 66. “You were either a nurse or a teacher.”

In addition to a reputation as a reformer who gets results, Elia brings to the new job a familiarity with Western New York, having attended Rosary Hill College (now Daemen College), the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State before teaching in Sweet Home.

“When she was a social studies teacher here, she was known as a really dynamic teacher that had great relationships with kids and was really a mentor for others in the department,” said Sweet Home Superintendent Anthony Day.

During her time here, she also became involved with groups – including tutoring programs – that supported children growing up in Buffalo.

Then in the mid-1980s, she followed the path of many other Western New Yorkers and relocated to Florida as a reading specialist in the Hillsborough County school system. She spent three decades there in a variety of roles from classroom teacher to, ultimately, superintendent, starting in 2005. During that time, the district’s graduation rate increased from 64 percent to 74 percent. She also improved participation and performance of minority students in advanced courses and expanded career pathways programs.

Toward the end of her tenure, however, she faced criticism from School Board members and some in the community who said she cultivated a workplace of fear and did not pay enough attention to issues that affect minority children. The board in January voted to terminate her contract, giving her a buyout package that amounted to about $1 million.

However, reform supporters attribute that vote to politics and praise her efforts to raise academic achievement while listening to all segments.

“Florida has had a strong focus on accountability for the last 12 to 13 years, and honestly I really believe that’s what we all want for our children,” Elia said.

In Hillsborough, that meant creating opportunities for students – particularly those who are black and Hispanic – to take higher level courses.

They also aimed to enroll more students in career pathways programs. The approach also meant finding ways to train and support teachers.

“We really looked to make sure that we supported our teachers to be able to handle in their classrooms students that needed additional support for basic level skills, but could be successful in those higher-level courses,” she said.

Although the Common Core standards faced similar criticism in Florida as they have in New York, Elia – a proponent – tried to get ahead of that by hosting forums to help parents, teachers and community members understand the standards – and why they are being implemented.

“That helped to defuse some of the concerns that parents have,” she said.

She envisions taking that same kind of approach in her new role as New York’s commissioner of education.

“Parents should know what’s going on in the classrooms with the children. We tried to make sure that we responded to issues – and listened,” she said.

Much of Elia’s work has been driven by a desire to create programs that serve students along all parts of the academic spectrum, perhaps because, with a son who is blind, she can empathize with what parents go through.

“My son is blind,” she said. “He was visually impaired from age 4. I understand the focus that parents who have a child who has special needs have because I lived it,” she said.