New state Education Commissioner visits Sweet Home school district

AMHERST, N.Y. (WIVB) – MaryEllen Elia has only been on the job as the state’s new Education Commissioner, and has not even had a chance to meet with the governor yet, but Thursday, she met with administrators, parents, teachers, and students in the Sweet Home school district, where she got her start as a teacher in 1970.

“This was just a really exciting opportunity for me to come back and be part of the work that’s being done in New York,” Elia said. “And there’s been a lot of good work done, but there is a lot of work to be completed.”

And Elia has gotten right to work to try to address some of the big issues when it comes to education in the state. The first step, she says, is listening. “It really is all different stakeholders, including kids, that have to be part of these conversations,” she said.

“There were a lot of ideas that she had that are definitely what schools need,” said incoming high school senior Conor Jackson after sitting down in a question and answer session with Elia Thursday morning. Jackson, and many others who met with Elia, say they generally liked a lot of what they heard, and they were grateful for the opportunity to be heard by the commissioner.

“It was wonderful that the commissioner of education would spend some time coming out to our school district specifically, to understand and get an idea of what we face,” said one school board member, Dirk Rabenold.

At least a few people who met with Elia this week said the new tone is a refreshing turnaround from what they’ve seen from the state until now. Things like common core curriculum and testing have been contentious issues across the state, and Elia says she plans to create working groups – with experts from outside the state and teachers – to take a look at those issues, and how things like their implementation can be improved. It’s a style she honed during her time as a superintendent in Florida. “We got a lot of feedback and if we were told, ‘We’ve got to have some changes here, this doesn’t seem to be working,’ I think it is smart to step back and say, ‘Okay, you are the one to have to do this, let’s look at it,” she recalled.

Elia’s stop in Sweet Home is the first of many the new education commissioner will be making at districts around the state this summer and fall.

She will be visiting district leaders and parents in Buffalo next week.

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