‘Collaborative” is the word MaryEllen Elia and those who know her use to describe her leadership style. That will be an important trait, because the newly named commissioner of the state Education Department must now bring New York’s warring factions to a treaty. Continued battling over education reform isn’t helping anyone.
Elia, who starts work in early July, is returning to New York after leading the eighth-largest school district in the nation, Florida’s Hillsborough County, which includes the city of Tampa and a large rural and suburban area. She is the Florida superintendent of the year, chosen by her peers, and was one of four finalists last year for national superintendent of the year. She was recently fired by Hillsborough’s county council after a decade thanks to a power struggle involving newly elected council members, creating an uproar among her supporters there.
Elia spent almost two decades teaching in public schools in New York and Florida. One of her greatest triumphs in Florida was a set of town hall meetings that explained the Common Core, why the new standards were important and how the changes would work, something that’s been ignored, then botched here.
She supports charter and magnet schools, and tough learning standards. She says teachers need to be evaluated, and that part of that evaluation must be the progress of students. But she also speaks passionately about teachers getting respect and admiration. She wants to lure the best candidates to college programs that better prepare them to teach, and get new teachers the mentoring they need.
She says troubled schools need strike teams that move in and address problems quickly and aggressively, something that’s been lacking in New York City. Elia’s passion and knowledge are obvious and welcome.
Now she will bring those qualities to a state where politicians are frozen by raging interest groups. Elia says the warring factions — teachers unions and parents and reformers — need to see that everyone can get a win, but no one can win it all. That’s the strategy to pursue, and the path that will lead to triumph for the students.