a new era

MaryEllen Elia, former Florida superintendent, is state’s next education chief

PHOTO: YouTube / HCPSVideoChannel
MaryEllen Elia in 2014.

Updated, 4:10 p.m. — MaryEllen Elia, a longtime educator and former school superintendent in Hillsborough County, Florida, has been chosen to lead New York’s education department.

The Board of Regents unanimously approved Elia’s appointment on Tuesday, concluding a period of uncertainty for the state education department, which has been without a leader for five months. Elia previously led the school system in Hillsborough County, one of the nation’s 10 biggest districts, where she named Florida’s 2015 superintendent of the year before being ousted by the school board in January — a move that garnered some local and national criticism.

Still, Elia will face a department in transition when she starts on July 6. She won’t have the extra millions of federal money that the state had been spending since 2010, when New York was awarded $700 million in Race to the Top grants. The policy changes that New York officials pushed over the next four years have boosted learning standards but also given rise to a growing movement of parents opposed to state testing and left school districts wary of fresh changes coming to teacher evaluations.

“I am very excited about working as a team with all of you,” Elia told the Regents after the vote. “I think we have a lot of great work to do, but it’s good work, and we’ll support the teachers, and the principals, and the staffs across the state.”

The January vote to oust Elia was controversial. Hillsborough school board members said that they were frustrated with principal complaints, problems with special-education services, and her leadership style, which they described as opaque and intimidating. Business leaders reportedly thought otherwise.

“What you have is a level of concern about what has been a very decisive style,” Elia told the Tampa Bay Business Journal in January. “When you are running an organization that large and so many depend in you, you have to make decisions and sometimes they are questioned. By law, the superintendent is the CEO of the district and that’s what I did.”

Under Elia’s leadership, Hillsborough County won more than $100 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to implement a new evaluation system before the rest of the state. In their grant application, school officials said they expected to fire at least 5 percent of the district’s tenured teachers annually for poor performance, according to a 2010 article by the Tampa Bay Times — something advocates who oppose rating teachers based on student test scores quickly seized on.

“Call Regents NOW – Elia CANNOT B NYS Ed Commish,” read a Twitter post Tuesday afternoon by the group New York State Allies for Public Education, which encouraged parents to boycott this year’s state exams. Meanwhile, High Achievement New York, the coalition of groups that advocates for the Common Core standards, called her an “inspired choice.”

Elia also made made headlines for her collaborative relationship with the local teachers union. Carol Kurdell, who has been a Hillsborough County school board member since 1992 (and who did not vote to terminate Elia’s contract), said Tuesday that it was very important to Elia to have support from principals and teachers, especially as the district implemented the new evaluation system.

“That’s not to say it happened without bumps and disagreements, but we have a new system in place that’s working,” Kurdell said. “It wasn’t about having my way or the highway.”

Before spending a decade leading the Hillsborough County schools, Elia was a teacher in New York state. She earned master’s degrees from the University of Buffalo and the State University of New York at Buffalo and taught for nearly two decades in New York and Florida. She is also a magnet-schools expert and was president of Magnet Schools of America.

Elia’s New York roots, and her teaching experience, won over the state teachers union, which released a statement of support even before state officials made an announcement.

“We are encouraged that Commissioner Elia is an educator with decades of experience as both a teacher in New York’s public schools and a superintendent in public education, and that she has strong academic credentials from our State University system,” President Karen Magee said.

New York’s Board of Regents formally launched the hiring process in early February, a little over a month after John King resigned after three-and-a-half years as state education commissioner. King’s tenure was marked by controversy around the how quickly the state moved to make significant changes to its teacher evaluations and its standardized tests. (Sources say Christopher Koch, Illinois’s longtime superintendent, and Dan White, a superintendent for a Western New York region that serves suburban districts, were also finalists.)

Since King’s resignation, the state’s education policy debates have only become more heated. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has focused his attention on education issues, passing a controversial new evaluation law that included an overhaul of teacher evaluations and dozens of other policy changes. Last October, he vowed to dismantle what he called the state’s public-education “monopoly,” infuriating teachers unions and local districts.

Meanwhile, nearly one-third of the 17 members of the Board of Regents — which oversees the state education department — were elected in the last 14 months. The new members are vocal critics of the policy changes prompted by Race to the Top.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”