tampabay.com

Superintendent discusses her role, responsibilities

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published July 28, 2006


For this Lunch with Ernest, I sat with Hillsborough school superintendent MaryEllen Elia in her office and skipped the meal. Elia is too busy to eat.

Actually, every lunch for Elia is a meeting and by the looks of it, Elia hasn't been eating a lot during those gatherings. She's lost 40 pounds since taking over as the school superintendent last July. She says she needs the new emphasis on health. Her schedule frequently begins with 6:30 a.m. meetings.

Despite the frenetic pace, Elia says she's enjoying the new job and feels excited about the start of another school year. Pull up a chair and join us.

ERNEST: Does your excitement ratchet up for back to school?

When you're a teacher, it doesn't quite hit you until the kids are sitting in front of you, and I feel the same way. You get ready all summer long, you're working; you've got trainings going on. I'm meeting with all the schools that we've targeted, the focus schools we think need some extra help and attention.

How significant is it to have so many A schools in the county?

I tell all the principals this: You have an A school and now the expectation is you're going to become better. Become better. Even with an A school, you have some kids you haven't stretched enough. Move up every year, no matter where you are.

What do you say to the parents whose kids aren't at A schools? Should they be upset, unnerved?

Well, no. I don't think so. If you know how those scores come about, it's possible that you could have a situation with one, two or three kids and that could take the school off the A. So, if you believe your child is getting a good education, then you should work hard to make that school and your child's education continue to be a great education.

Teachers love parents who are supportive, but some parents think they know more than the teacher and other parents don't even show up. Do you worry about the relationship between teachers and parents?

I think that, basically, people can be respectful of each other. I think it's important for parents to support their students, but they also have to realize that if they weren't at the situation, they have to rely on the other adults that were there. It's important to listen to your student, be trusting of them but also give the school a fair opportunity to give another side.

You're responsible for the education of 196,000 students and you head an institution that is the county's largest employer. Are you the most influential public official in the county?

I would like to think I have one of the most important jobs in the county, because I really think if everybody came to realize how important education is for a community, that everybody would try to solve the problems that the education system has. Everybody isn't perfect, but we need to respond and expect that our community is a partner with us.

When we're doing that, we're making our kids the best they can be. I believe this is the most important social institution that exists. I think family is absolutely critical; they are the first teacher and they continue to teach. I also would suggest that we have to always think, what are we teaching our children in this community by how we behave? We have to model it for them, and when we model it, we'll make good citizens for our community when the kids eventually become adults. You're setting the stage for the next generation.

Knowing that your job is so important, are you ever awe-struck by your job?

Certainly, that level of responsibility weighs on me. I want to do the very best job I can do. I try to do that every day.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Times' Tampa & State edition. He can be reached at 813 226-3406 or hooper@sptimes.com.