Diane Ellsworth wants to meet all families before classes begin
By Elizabeth Doran
Today is Diane Ellsworth’s first day as principal of the Onondaga Nation School, and she set a lofty goal for her first few weeks on the job.
Ellsworth hopes to meet every family of the 88 students before the first day of classes.
“I definitely want to do it, and I’m going to try my hardest,” said Ellsworth, who replaces retiring Principal Carol Erb. “I really want to try to get to know everyone.”
Ellsworth, 48, was elementary school principal in the Canisteo-Greenwood school district in Steuben County, which serves a large number of Senecas, for the past three years. Ellsworth says she wants to be part of the LaFayette school system’s vision for educating children.
She said she’s attracted by the nontraditional school, one of just three American Indian schools in the state, and enjoys the challenge of blending two cultures under one roof. She also likes the district’s progressive approach.
“LaFayette isn’t afraid to think outside the box,” she said. “They want to do what’s good for the kids and their education. It’s not the same old, same old here.”
Ellsworth was one of 16 applicants for the position, and was selected after three rounds of interviews with the school board, administrators, parents and community members, said Superintendent Peter Tigh.
“She was the unanimous choice of all,” he said. “Her teaching and administrative experience K-12, her integrity, her ability to speak and write with clarity, and her sincere desire to be in LaFayette set her apart. She is a wonderful addition to our community.”
Ellsworth talked about her new job:
What appealed to you about this job?
I researched and visited the school and saw its potential. It’s a really unique situation here and I see it a real opportunity to grow, and maybe eventually become an expert. For example, if you ask Carol Erb about Native American children and how they learn, and how to familiarize yourself and become part of their community, she can tell you what to try.
I also like the location, close to Cortland, where I’m from. My parents are both deceased, but my brothers and sisters are all in Cortland.
Why do you think you’re the right person for the job?
I actually asked why I was chosen and was told my personality was a good fit. I’ve got a good sense of humor, and I’m pretty laid-back, but I’m not afraid to be aggressive either when it comes to defending the school or being a vocal advocate of this school. And I’m a straight shooter. If I tell you something, you know that’s what I’m telling everybody. You have to be honest, because if not, why open your mouth at all?
How will you build trust within the Native American community?
By being honest and open. People may not always agree with my decisions, but if I’m open and honest, at least people can respect me.
How do you feel about not being Native American in an American Indian school?
I was a little nervous about it, but then I learned Carol is not Native American, and it didn’t seem to be an issue with her. I think everyone on the nation just wants someone to care about their kids, and help prepare them to go out in the world and be successful.
What will be your greatest challenge?
To think outside the box more. All my experiences have been in traditional rural schools, and LaFayette is not traditional. You have to look at different ways of meeting kids’ needs, and this administration recognizes that.
For example, look at the dropout rate. You can change that. In Gowanda (she was assistant principal at Gowanda Middle-High School in Cattaraugus County), I was in charge of the dropout-prevention committee. What we did is get the names of kids who were doing poorly and had mentioned dropping out, or those that already had. We went to the kids and asked them what we could we do to keep them in school, and talked to their parents, sometimes even working out coming to school part time while employed. The dropout rate was 6 percent when I arrived and was down to 2.8 percent when I left.
What’s first on your to-do list?
Developing a good, solid, positive rapport with the staff, students and the community. Once I start to get there, I can look at other challenges. Because if everyone doesn’t know me, they’re going to look at me like “you don’t know enough about us.” Change is good, but it has to be a process that’s comfortable for everyone.
And I can’t wait to eat lunch here with the kids; I used to do that at least once a week. But I’m not a wheat bread person, so that will be an adjustment.
Elizabeth Doran can be reached at email@example.com or 470-3012.