Once word leaked out that MaryEllen Elia was to be appointed, New York State parents, activists, and educators took to search engines to thoroughly research her background. Already troubled by the lack of transparency and stakeholder input in the search for a state education leader, what they found out about her work record proved even more disconcerting. Elia was paid a million dollars so that the school board could let her go "without cause" from her superintendent job in Hillsborough School District in Tampa, Florida. For a district to be willing to pay that much in a "parachute payment," one might guess there had to have been some valid concerns and not just political angst. Elia was a pro-Common Core, pro-high-stakes testing, pro-ranking/stacking/firing teachers, pro-voucher and pro-school choice kind of super who was also cozy with Jeb Bush. As superintendent, she managed a 100 million dollar grant to Hillsborough from the Gates Foundation, intended to improve teacher evaluations and link them to testing. She also advocated for and used merit pay.
Elia's evaluations by Hillsborough Board members refer to her intimidating leadership style which created a "culture of fear," her lack of communication and transparency, and her lack of investigation and follow-through after the deaths of four students. In her plus column, she was willing to go head to head to fight against expansion of a for-profit charter company with a questionable record, so she is apparently not a pushover for moneyed charter interests. Let's further investigate her record.
1. Elia's Record on School Choice
Pro-choice policies that Elia supported during her years at Hillsborough contributed to some district schools becoming "sacrifice zones" with high violence and crime rates, disproportionate suspension rates for minority students, and a lack of connection between schools and communities. The result was that the school district failed to provide a sound education for thousands of their students, and has one of the worst black graduation rates in the state.
Prior to her 2005 appointment as superintendent at Hillsborough, Elia was head of the district's magnet school office. Problems began in 2001, when a federal order requiring busing to integrate schools was lifted, in favor of the district's position that racial segregation had been eliminated. The district then decided to move ahead with a "controlled choice" plan that would encourage racial diversity through magnet schools that would supposedly bring middle-class students to inner city schools, and inner-city kids to the largely white and more suburban schools.
The district rapidly converted middle schools into specialty magnet schools for science/technology, criminal justice, and performing arts. They chose students through a lottery system that was weighted based on zip code, income, and other diversity factors. Elia and her supervisors, however, overestimated how many parents from high-poverty neighborhoods would sign their children up for the magnets in other areas of the district. Poorer parents often do not have transportation, and they work long hours. They therefore chose to keep their children in schools in their neighborhoods, even when they were labeled as "failing schools." By the time it became clear that this was a problem, thousands of middle school students had been displaced and were without a neighborhood school to attend, because those schools had already been converted to magnets. Elia and other district leadership were slow to respond to the problem. They tried to "take back" some of the magnets and return them to neighborhood schools, but were met with resistance by parents who were looking forward to the opportunity for a magnet experience for their children. Unwilling to oppose the parents, the district backed down.
Two schools were converted to K-8 schools, but they were severely overcrowded and did not have enough resources to accommodate the students. When that failed, the district bused students to other schools, like East Tampa's McLane Middle School, Mann Middle in Brandon, and Madison and Monroe Middle Schools in South Tampa. At McLane, the high-poverty student body felt alienated, had to endure long bus rides (where violence often began and ended their day), and became immersed in a school culture that was gang-influenced to the point that students were "arming themselves out of fear." The school had scant resources to deal with homelessness and learning disabilities, classroom fights and attacks on teachers, and "flash mob fights" at arrival and dismissal times. The "school-to-prison pipeline" became firmly entrenched, with an average of one student a week leaving the school in handcuffs. Administration enforced punitive discipline measures that fell disproportionately on black students. While black students made up 52% of the student body, they accounted for 90% of the expulsions.
In spite of the severity of the problems caused by the school choice plan she had enthusiastically embraced, Elia was promoted to Superintendent of the district in 2005. In 2014, nearly ten years later, inequity issues at schools like McLane remained largely unsolved and a complaint with the USDOE Office for Civil Rights was filed by Marilyn Williams, a community activist. She states, "Without a doubt, this district has built one of the worst school-to-prison pipelines in the state of Florida." The complaint cited the discriminatory harsher penalties and disproportionate suspension rates for black students, and the fact that high-poverty students were denied access to experienced teachers. Elia's response to the latter was a pay incentive plan that gave teachers who volunteered to relocate a 2% pay raise the first year, and 5% after that. Those in the highest-poverty schools got a $1,000 recruitment bonus and a $2,000 retention bonus after the first year. The school climate improved somewhat with a new principal - but the large-scale busing which is the root cause was never addressed.
It is clear from the magnet school fiasco that Elia and other district leadership did not have a firm grasp on the logistics of the community in the district. As superintendent, Elia did little to address the worst of the concerns, until forced to do so by a federal civil rights complaint.
2. Those Heartbreaking Deaths on Elia's Watch
No administrator, teacher, or community member should have to go through the death of a student, especially when that death happens during school hours. When that death may have been prevented, it is a tragedy of outstanding proportions. During Elia's reign as superintendent at Hillsborough, four students died in her district.
In January 2012, a seven year old special needs child died on a schoolbus. The seven year old had a neuromuscular disorder and could not control her neck and head. An IEP required the school district to stabilize her head, especially during transportation. School personnel on the bus failed to do that, and when her head tilted forward it cut off her airway. At the time, a 21-year old district policy required the driver to call dispatchers instead of 911. It is possible that if 911 were called immediately, the little girl may have been resuscitated. In spite of the horrible circumstances, Elia did not thoroughly investigate the incident to assess whether the district should change or reform conditions that may have contributed to the death. She relied on an investigation from the sheriff's office that stated there was no wrongdoing. Worse yet, she failed to inform the school board of the tragedy. The family filed a lawsuit against the district, finally bringing the matter to the attention of the board and the public. There are those who called for a task force to examine the policies about calling 911, but there was also a call for an investigation into why it took a lawsuit to bring attention to the death.
On January 17, 2014 yet another child died in the district, this time at Seminole Heights Elementary School, leading to another lawsuit. Stephen Maher, lawyer for the family, stated "Another child has died because of the failure of the school district to call 911 and perform CPR and other life-saving measures." The child complained of a severe headache and was sent to the back of the room to lie down. When he started vomiting, the school nurse was called. The nurse then called the parents and left a voicemail telling them to come pick up their son. By the time they arrived, his lips were blue and he was unresponsive. Only then was 911 called. He was operated on for a brain hemorrhage, but he had been without oxygen for too long and did not survive.
School policy seems to have been complicit in the death. In the fall of 2013, teachers in the district had been shown a videotape with instructions to either call the front office first in a medical emergency, or call 911 if they had access to a cell phone. If those instructions had warned them to call 911 immediately, the child may have been saved. This is especially troublesome in light of the fact that this incident occurred TWO YEARS after the 2012 death, and the district still had not adequately addressed their procedures for medical emergencies. It was not until March of 2014 that a policy to first call 911 was instituted, with additional requirements training bus drivers and aides in how to handle students with disabilities.
Two more children died at Hillsborough while Elia was superintendent. In September 2012, an autistic sophomore at a public charter school in the district drowned at a back to school pool party. The following month, a Downs Syndrome child ran off from gym class and drowned in a pond that was on school property. While there is not a legal claim that school policies could have prevented these two accidental deaths, questions linger as to why special needs children in the district were not more thoroughly supervised.
The most troubling aspect to many, aside from the deaths themselves, is that the district, led by Elia, failed to act in an expedited way to investigate the circumstances around these deaths, and propose or institute reforms that would make the chances of other deaths far less likely.
New York State has a deep schism between the "have" and the "have-not" schools. Equitable funding and the establishment of meaningful community-based policies are crucial to address the issues that poverty presents to many of our schools. To solve these problems is going to take a massive effort and the collaboration of many diverse groups. In light of Elia's record, I fear she may not have what it takes to lead our state in a productive, and not punitive, course of action. So far, her soundbytes repeat a mantra of testing and Common Core, and not the need to solve the real problems that impoverished districts face.