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Newly Appointed Superintendent Vows to Listen to Parents in District 17

 Clarence Ellis is the new superintendent for District 17 in Brooklyn.
Clarence Ellis is the new superintendent for District 17 in Brooklyn.
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DNAinfo/Rachel Holliday Smith

CROWN HEIGHTS — Clarence Ellis, the new superintendent for District 17 in Brooklyn, is not going to tell parents what to think.

A longtime educator and administrator in New York City who was just appointed to manage 35 schools in Central Brooklyn, Ellis said his first task is to build trust among the area's families, so that he can meet their needs and improve the district's schools.

"Everything is based on relationships," said Ellis, one of the superintendents appointed last week by Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

"Our success, especially in education leadership, is based on relationships and creating some form of trust. Now, I think the way to do that is meeting people, hearing their concerns. I don’t want to be the one telling them what they need."

Ellis is taking over the role from the previous District 17 superintendent, Buffie Simmons, who clashed with some parents who felt that she did not listen to their input.

Parent Tim Thomas, a local blogger who has written about parents' criticisms of Simmons, said he found her "combative" and noticed a lack of parent involvement under her leadership.

“There were no open houses, there was no marketing being done at all," he said.

Thomas was pleased to see a new appointment in the district — which covers the neighborhoods on the east side of Prospect Park, from the north of Flatbush to Prospect Heights — and hopes Ellis will prioritize communication and increase diversity in the schools.

“The best thing [Ellis] could do … is create a more open, inviting policy to try to get the schools to reflect the diversity of the neighborhoods," he said, adding that it should be a priority “to reach out to the local parents and bring them in so the district can get better together.”

The Department of Education declined to comment on why specific superintendents were replaced but noted that tougher guidelines went into effect earlier this year requiring superintendents to have at least 10 years of education experience, including three as a principal.

Ellis was born and raised in Brooklyn and first joined the Department of Education as a sixth-grade teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He has since worked his way up in a series of administrative positions in Brooklyn and Manhattan until, most recently, he led one of the 11 clusters of principal networks.

Ellis said he is particularly inspired by Chancellor Fariña's first “pillar” of education, “to return dignity and respect to our work force.”

“That’s the one that got me the most. Restore respect and honor to our craft. That’s serious,” he said.

Ellis spoke to DNAinfo New York from his new office at the Maggie Walker Campus in Crown Heights, discussing his vision for the district. Here's what he had to say:

What improvements to schools in District 17 excite you most? How do you hope to change and improve the schools in the area?

My primary focus will be looking at instructional practice  enhancing comprehensive instruction for all our children. Because, you know, you can prepare a child to do well on a test, but the comprehensive understanding and teaching and learning is the best experience for them to really internalize it …. I have to apply the my-own-child test to that classroom or that situation. So, if I walk in a classroom and I think … would I want my child or my friend’s child in that classroom? That’s the bar we need to reach.

One of the areas that I’d like to pay close attention to is the whole idea of family resource centers … if you look at some of the third or fourth-grade math, you know, some parents could have difficulty helping their children with that. That could be any parent, throughout [the city]  it’s pretty rigorous.

Charter schools are numerous in District 17 and many are co-located in traditional public school buildings. How are you involved in the process of co-location?

It’s a long-term process [before co-location takes place]… Once they identify schools, there will be school visits with teams, multiple meetings with the stakeholders. It’s not a quick one-two-three decision. And, you know, there sometimes has to be several walk-throughs through several buildings. Once an agreement is come upon, my role is to just make sure that I support the whole process.

Do you support charter schools and encourage parents to consider them for their children?

I think that’s a very personal decision. Parents have a right to make the decision that’s right for their family. Far be it for me to tell them which route they should take.

Historically, there are some very well-run charters and there’s very well-run public schools. There are charters that have some issues; there are public schools that have issues.

What does an ideal school look like for District 17?

There would be great student achievement and high expectations ... cultural activities, connections with universities, trips to maybe a farm to see how food is processed … I mean, those kind of things I would look for. And a great deal of parent involvement.