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Education chief issues tough-love message for struggling schools

New York State's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia,

New York State's new education commissioner, MaryEllen Elia, gives her first speech in Albany on July 22, 2015. Elia discussed how to turn failing schools around during the state Education Department conference. Credit: Shannon DeCelle

ALBANY -- New York Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia voiced encouragement but also had a tough-love message for underperforming schools Wednesday: Expectations have changed.

"One thing we can't do is ignore the situation. I won't ignore the situation," Elia, who officially took over as commissioner 12 days ago, told a group of administrators and parents whose schools recently were labeled "struggling" or "persistently struggling" and face potential take over.

Elia said the state wanted feedback about measuring progress and offered help in developing improvement strategies. But she made clear the targeted schools couldn't just tread water.

"If I don't see (progress), I will be intimately involved in your district," Elia said. "The state is going to support you, but change has to occur at a local level . . . I've done turnaround, but turning around a school is hard work and it doesn't happen on a dime."

It was her first public address to a wide audience about the issue of placing schools under receivership under a new law enacted earlier this year. Last week, the state placed 144 schools statewide, including five on Long Island, on the receivership list. She challenged the audience, saying if they wouldn't put their child in one of the struggling schools, "then why is it [the school] good enough for anybody's child?"

Audience members politely quizzed the new schools chief about state funding formulas, students who speak English as a second language, and outreach to parents. But they said Elia's message was clear.

"I think she has high expectations and you can't argue with that," said Dale Getto, principal of Albany High School. She added, referring to school administrators: "Expectations have been too low for too long."

"She's kind of saying 'tough love. Money isn't the answer,' " said Belinda Monroe, treasurer of the Roosevelt School District Parent Teacher Student Association.

But Monroe said targeted schools are not getting enough financial help under the new receivership plan. "We are making improvements, but we're not getting any real help," she said.

Roosevelt Superintendent Deborah Wortham and other district representatives contended its middle school shouldn't be on the list. They asked Elia to review the data; she said she would.

Schools identified as "struggling" have fallen short of standards for three consecutive years and have two more years to show improvement under local superintendents before further management steps are taken.

Schools labeled "persistently struggling" have failed to meet state and federal standards for at least a decade, and have one year to show progress under local superintendents before being turned over to outside managers.

"I think it's important to say that, in the end, we've got to have a change in these schools," Elia said. "We all understand the constraints of the timeline. But it is what it is and you have to move forward."

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