New superintendent takes reins of Mesa Public Schools
August 6, 2018
By Jim Walsh
Mesa Public Schools Superintendent Ember Conley gained a unique perspective on the value of education in several ways during her rise to her new position as the top administrator of Arizona’s largest school district.
Conley, 46, is the first person in her family to graduate from college.
And she launched her teaching career in Cortez, Colorado, where she taught children from the Navajo and the Ute Mountain Ute reservations.
“I think it gives me a perspective on the struggles our children go through,’’ Conley said. “Everyone has to be from somewhere. It’s what you do with it.’’
In Cortez, Conley worked as a teacher and a principal, adding classes in Native American history and art to help the children understand their heritage.
“My background in working with Native Americans has really benefited me,’’ she said. “We need to give kids a sense of belonging because they are from different backgrounds.’’
Conley’s history of working with people from different cultures should help her in Mesa, where children from a variety of minority groups slightly outnumber Caucasian children.
A demographics report provided by the district shows the diversity, with 43.4 percent of students white, 43 percent Hispanic, 5.1 percent black/African American, and 2.2 percent Asian.
Poverty is also pervasive, with 53.3 percent of students overall qualifying for free or reduced cost lunches and some schools in the 90 percent range.
“I think we will be approachable and inclusive of all students,” Conley said.
Conley was selected by the Mesa governing board after former superintendent Michael Cowan announced his resignation from a position he had held for nine years to answer a call from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to go on a three-year mission to the Dominican Republic.
She also is one of two new superintendents this school year in the East Valley. Kevin Mendivil has taken the reins at Tempe Union, where six-year Superintendent Kenneth Baca resigned to become the new head of Madison Elementary School District in Phoenix.
Conley learned the value of education at an early age.
Her mother dropped out of high school a few months shy of graduation to marry her father, who was returning home from the Korean War.
But her parents always stressed education and she left her small hometown in southwestern Colorado to graduate from ASU with a degree in agricultural business.
At first, Conley worked in her father’s lumber business, but she quickly realized she had a higher calling in life when she served as a Sunday school teacher and high school coach.
“What I found was that I really liked to be around kids,’’ Conley said. “They are my happy zone. They giggle and they laugh.’’
At first, Conley’s father didn’t approve of her leaving a good paying job to “go into poverty’’ as a teacher, but he is now proud of her, she said.
“He said, ‘You’ve lost your mind and you’re going to ruin your life,’’’ she said.
Conley’s unconventional background also influenced her to embrace diversity long before it became a buzzword. She has a sister whom her family adopted from the Navajo Reservation and spent a lot of time around Native Americans as a child.
Although her father did well in his lumber business, selling posts used for guardrails, the family lived simply and frugally in a mobile home in Delores, Colorado.
Conley became acquainted with Arizona during her summer break from school while growing up. Her family lived in the East Valley part-time and her father operated a wood treatment plant in Maricopa.
She eventually worked as a deputy superintendent, director of assessment and elementary school principal in Maricopa, and spent five years as superintendent of the Park City School District.
Conley has two children of her own. She named her daughter, Smoki, 20, after her father’s nickname for having a dark complexion. Smoki is attending college in Utah, while Conley’s 9-year-old son Will is attending a Mesa elementary school.
Conley said she adopted her son, who was born to a mother who used methamphetamines that left him a special needs student with severe ADHD. She has high hopes for her son, saying he is benefiting from speech therapy and other programs.
“Social and emotional learning is important to me. I’m passionate about changing the approach we use to support children, prevent childhood drug and alcohol addiction and address the mental health needs of students.’’
Conley repeats her goals often as a down-pat mantra: improving third grade reading proficiency as the bedrock of future learning; increasing eighth grade math and 11th grade English proficiency, and improving graduation rates.
She said students who are not proficient in reading by the end of third grade generally never read well, hampering their ability to learn. Students who are not proficient in math by the end of eighth grade often drop out and never make it to college.
It generally takes a child who was raised in a non-English-speaking home 11 years to become fluent in English, Conley said.
“Right now, 1 in 4 students is not graduating. That is absolutely not acceptable,’’ Conley said.
Although Conley was not around for the #redfored movement, she supports better pay for teachers and better funding for education. She said it’s time to recognize teachers as professionals and pay them that way.
She said she does not support punishing teachers for their dramatic walkout, which culminated in 50,000 educators marching on the state Capitol and a 9 percent pay increase for teachers.
“They were exercising their rights as a citizen to stand up for something they believe in, in a peaceful manner,’’ Conley said.
She said teacher pay has not been adjusted in Arizona since the recession, unlike other states that restored education funding.
“Their student outcomes are far exceeding ours,” Conley said, adding, “I was a teacher, too.’’