Just days into her job overseeing one of the country’s largest state school systems, MaryEllen Elia is returning to where she started her career – the Sweet Home Central School District.
Sweet Home is the first stop on a statewide listening tour aimed at introducing – and state officials hope endearing – Elia to parents, teachers and other stakeholders as she gets a feel for New York’s education landscape.
“The day after the Regents appointed me, I had the opportunity to visit Pine Hills Elementary School in Albany,” Elia said. “I was reminded how important it is to meet with and listen to teachers and principals, and most important, to spend time with and listen to the children who attend the 7,000 schools across our state. My first item of business as commissioner will be listening to parents, teachers, principals, superintendents and board members as I visit schools across New York.”
Although Sweet Home is the only school district on Thursday’s agenda, Elia will return to Western New York next week to meet with Buffalo school officials, parents and other community leaders. And she is expected to continue visiting districts throughout the summer, leading up to a larger back-to-school blitz.
The meet-and-greet efforts could prove vital in setting the tone for Elia’s tenure as education commissioner, which began Monday and comes at a time some segments of the community are still nursing hurt feelings and battle wounds from the controversies that swirled under her predecessor.
Former commissioner John B. King, who left for a job at the U.S. Department of Education, was criticized for not pro-actively seeking community input on the reforms he initiated, and then not being responsive when concerns about the Common Core standards and testing boiled over.
Elia is no stranger to the politics that surround education, and the plans for a listening tour reflect how the former Hillsborough County, Fla., superintendent went about tackling tough topics there.
“She definitely spent a lot of time going out into the community, doing town hall meetings and trying to get her message across,” said Jean Clements, president of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. “She always believed that if we talk, we can better understand each other. I never saw her shy away from going into a tough audience.”
Elia, who has Lewiston roots and married into a well-known Niagara Falls family, takes the helm at a time the state’s school system is in the midst of a number of highly controversial reform efforts, including the continued implementation of the Common Core standards and revamping of a teacher evaluation system.
“Hopefully this is an opportunity for her to learn and hopefully move New York State in the right direction,” Chris Cerrone, a parent involved with the group Western New Yorkers for Public Education, said of the visits. “She needs to understand why there is such a pushback against the state testing system. It’s not that parents are afraid of their children failing or standards. It’s how it’s affecting what happens in the classroom.”
Although the Common Core standards faced similar criticism in Florida as in New York, Elia tried to get ahead of that by hosting community forums to better help parents, teachers and community members understand the learning standards – and why they are being implemented.
“We did a lot of communication with our teachers so that they understood the changes,” Elia said in an interview earlier this year. “And we did a lot of training with them. Then we rolled that out to the parents and the community members.”
During her tenure, the district also created Parent Universities, which aimed to give families information about school programs by enticing them to Saturday seminars with child care, breakfast and lunch. The district hosted the seminars in conjunction with a parent group and the United Way.
She also worked with teachers to develop a merit-pay plan that awarded bonuses to those whose students showed the most improvement. While merit pay can be controversial, Elia has said that collaboration with teachers was key to making the effort successful.
The new commissioner has had some time since her appointment at the end of May to begin building relationships with key players. That includes the leadership of New York State United Teachers, which a spokesperson said is optimistic about her taking the position.
Elia will likely lean on her decades of experience in public schools to help win over skeptics.
That includes 16 years at the start of her career working as a social studies teacher at Sweet Home High School. She then went to Florida, where she served in a variety of roles before becoming Hillsborough’s superintendent in 2005. In that role, Elia was well regarded by her peers in Florida and across the country, who nominated her as a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year.
Any success in the Sunshine State, however, Elia attributes to her Western New York roots. She is the first person from the area – and the first woman – to take the state’s top education position.
“She will tell you the things that she did in Florida were directly as a result of what she learned in New York State,” her husband, Albert Elia, said in an interview earlier this year. “We were talking about this the other day and I said ... ‘Who would have thought that in 1970s when you were a teacher at Sweet Home High School you would some day become the commissioner of education.”
Back then, Elia figured she would spend the end of her career exactly where she started – Sweet Home.
In a sense, she is. Only now she serves Sweet Home – and the rest of New York’s districts – in a much different capacity.