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New state education commissioner caps listening tour with stops in Buffalo

On the job for less than two weeks, new state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia wasted no time visiting the state’s largest – and most struggling – school districts.

Buffalo was the last stop as she visited four of New York’s largest school systems as part of a listening tour she kicked off in Sweet Home last week. She was joined by Catherine Collins, the area’s representative to the New York State Board of Regents.

“We are pleased that Commissioner Elia visited Buffalo nine days after beginning her tenure,” said School Board President James Sampson. “We are encouraged that she will be focusing on our schools and ensuring that all kids have access to high-quality opportunities.”

Elia spent Friday morning visiting Buffalo schools that have summer school programs, talking to teachers and students.

“We’re very anxious to work with the Buffalo School Board and administration,” she said.

Visiting classrooms, Elia fired off questions about everything from reading and parent involvement to support services.

And at East High School, she encouraged school and district leaders to appeal the state’s mandate that the school be phased out. East has shown significant improvement in its graduation rate in recent years, and Principal Casey Young said he expects it to surpass 60 percent this year.

In her meeting with the Buffalo School Board, the topic of receivership dominated the conversation. The new law will allow receivers – eventually from outside the district – to make sweeping changes at some of the state’s most struggling schools.

“I ultimately believe that this can help all schools in Buffalo,” she said.

Born in Rochester, Elia grew up in Lewiston and then attended Daemen College, the University at Buffalo and SUNY Buffalo State before working in Sweet Home for 16 years.

She then moved to Florida, where she built her career in the Hillsborough County school district, eventually becoming superintendent.

“I was very impressed with Ms. Elia,” said board member Jay McCarthy. “She seems very dedicated to the success of Buffalo schools. I look forward to working with her and her staff.”