MILTON – While sitting in the Susquehanna Central Intermediate Unit (CSIU) office on his first day as the organization’s executive director, Dr John Kurelja had a bit of haze in his eyes so that he was looking at an old photo of himself. with Kenny Garabadian.
Kurelja joined CSIU five years ago as the organization’s academic director, after serving six years as the Warrior Run School District Superintendent.
He was appointed deputy general manager of CSIU two years ago and on Thursday he officially became the organization’s general manager. He replaces Dr Kevin Singer, who has retired.
It wasn’t long before Kurelja pulled out the photo of him with Garabadian when asked why he decided to enter the field of education.
“He believed in me,” Kurelja said of Garabadian. “He saw more in me than I ever saw in myself.
“Because of what he saw in me… I was going to do my best to be up to it.”
Garabadian, who has since died, was Kurelja’s wrestling trainer in elementary school while growing up in New Jersey.
“I don’t come from a lot,” Kurelja said. “I was the youngest of 10 children. My father passed away when I was 3.”
With his mother working long hours to make ends meet, Garabadian entered Kurelja’s life at a time when he needed a mentor.
“He was that father figure that I wanted,” Kurelja said. “He just believed in me… I can pay next.”
Kurelja moved from New Jersey to Bloomsburg in 1997. Prior to accepting the Superintendent of the Warrior Run School District, Kurelja worked in the Bloomsburg School District and for 10 years in the Central Columbia School District.
At Central Columbia, he served as a college principal and academic coordinator.
Believing in CSIU’s mission, Kurelja felt the time had come to join the organization five years ago.
“It was an opportunity to make a difference on a bigger scale,” he said.
Kurelja will work with CSIU stakeholders, including board members and school district superintendents in the region served by the organization, to develop a plan for the future.
“I always thought it was a mistake for someone who is new to a job to say ‘I’m going to do this’,” he said. “My first step is to create an entry plan.”
Those served by the organization will receive a survey asking about the strengths and weaknesses of CSIU. From these poll results, Kurelja will develop her entry plan to help guide the future of CSIU.
He praised the organization for its role in working with area school districts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
Regionally, Kurelja said students were spending more time in class than the national average throughout the pandemic.
“I have been impressed with the work of superintendents and administrators in keeping schools open,” he said.
At the start of the pandemic, Kurelja said the CSIU facilitated daily Zoom meetings between zone superintendents.
He noted that a number of superintendents with less than two years of experience in their positions were employed across the region when the pandemic broke.
“I knew it would be vital to work together,” Kurelja said. “I’m so proud of them, of the way they worked together.”
In addition to facilitating meetings between superintendents and regularly updating districts with pandemic information from states, Kurelja said the CSIU has also facilitated opportunities for educators in the region to receive the COVID-19 vaccination. .
He believes the CSIU, and education in general, must advance the lessons learned throughout the pandemic.
“Our region, the state, the country, the world, has suffered significant losses,” Kurelja said. “We are going to be better and stronger as an organization on the other side of the pandemic.
“Many parents felt more connected with schools,” he continued. “Teachers went above and beyond to reach families. We have used technology in ways we never thought possible.”
Kurelja stressed that using the lessons learned throughout the pandemic “does not mean virtual learning”.
“There are a multitude of ways we can personalize learning,” he said.
Kurelja praised school districts across the region for preparing for the mandatory switch to virtual learning early in the pandemic, as many had already provided laptops and other devices for every student to use.
“The barriers we saw were around broadband accessibility,” Kurelja said.
He noted that the CSIU will continue to advocate for broadband access for all.
According to Kurelja, CSIU is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
“Our organization, which is different from others (middle units), does not tax the local (school) districts we serve,” he said.
Rather, districts can choose to purchase various services from the middle unit. The organization also facilitates many educational opportunities throughout the region.
“I like it and want to develop it in any way I can,” Kurelja said.
He said CSIU has 600 full-time staff and around 200 part-time staff.
Kurelja said the organization can impact people from all walks of life.
For example, he said that CSIU offers programs that a pregnant single mother could participate in to help them find a career and provide future educational opportunities for the child.
Kurelja said he could provide dozens of examples of people whose lives have changed for the better as they have been served by various programs offered by CSIU.
“These things happen because of the quality of the people who work here,” he said. “They make me want to be better.”