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Reflective Kurelja ready to lead CSIU

As featured in The Milton Standard Journal

Dr. John Kurelja is now serving as the Executive Director of the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit (CSIU). Photo by Kevin Mertz

MILTON — As he sat in the office at the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit (CSIU) on his first day serving as the organization's executive director, Dr. John Kurelja had a bit of a mist in his eyes as he looked at an old photo of himself with Kenny Garabadian.

Kurelja joined CSIU five years ago as the organization's chief academic officer, after serving six years as the Warrior Run School District's superintendent.

He was named CSIU assistant executive director two years ago, and on Thursday formally became the organization's executive director. He replaces Dr. Kevin Singer, who has retired.

Kurelja was quick to pull out the photo of himself with Garabadian when asked why he decided to enter the education field.

John Kurelja with man who inspired him to enter the field of education

From left, Dr. John Kurelja with Kenny Garabadian, the man who inspired him to enter the education field. Photo by Kevin Mertz

"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 live up to it."

Garabadian, who has since passed away, was Kurelja's elementary school wrestling coach while he was growing up in New Jersey.

"I didn't come from a lot," Kurelja said. "I was the youngest of 10 kids. My dad passed away when I was 3."

With his mother working long hours to make ends meet, Garabadian came into Kurelja's life at a time in which he needed a mentor. 

"He was that father figure I was craving," Kurelja said. "He just believed in me... I can pay it forward."

Kurelja moved from New Jersey to Bloomsburg in 1997. Prior to accepting the superintendent in 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 middle school principal and academic coordinator.

Believing in the CSIU's mission, Kurelja felt the timing was right to join the organization five years ago.

"This was an opportunity to make a difference on a little bigger scale," he said.

Kurelja will be working with CSIU stakeholders, including board members and superintendents from area school districts served by the organization, to craft a forward-moving plan.

"I've always believed it's a mistake for someone who is new to a position 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 be given a survey asking the CSIU's strengths and weaknesses. From those survey results, Kurelja will craft his 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 spent more time in the classroom than the national average throughout the pandemic.

"I was impressed by the work of superintendents and administrators to keep schools open," he said. 

At the onset of the pandemic, Kurelja said CSIU facilitated daily Zoom meetings among area superintendents.

He noted that a number of superintendents with less than two years of experience serving in their positions were employed throughout the area when the pandemic broke.

"I knew it was going to be vital to work together," Kurelja said. "I am so proud of them, with how they worked together."

In addition to facilitating meetings among superintendents, and regularly keeping districts updated on pandemic information from the states, Kurelja said CSIU also facilitated opportunities for area educators to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.

He believes CSIU, and education in general, must carry forward lessons learned throughout the pandemic.

"Our region, the state, the country, the world, has experienced significant loss," 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 the schools," he continued. "Teachers went above and beyond to reach out to families. We used technology in ways we never felt was 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 lauded area school districts for being prepared for the mandated switch to virtual learning at the onset of the pandemic as many had already provided laptops and other devices to each student to use.

"The hindrances we saw were in broadband accessibility," Kurelja said.

He noted 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 than other (intermediate units), doesn't tax the local (school) districts that we serve," he said. 

Rather, districts can opt to purchase various services from the intermediate unit. The organization also facilitates numerous educational opportunities throughout the region. 

"I love that and I want to grow that in any way possible," Kurelja said.

He said CSIU has 600 full-time and around 200 part-time employees.

Kurelja said the organization can impact individuals from all walks of life. 

For example, he said CSIU offers programs which a pregnant, single mother could enter to help her find a career and to provide future educational opportunities for the child.

Kurelja said he could provide dozens of examples of individuals whose lives have changed for the better as they were served by various programs offered by CSIU.

"Those things happen because of the quality of people that work here," he said. "They make me want to be better."