Charter school founder to be named education commissioner

One of the founders of an acclaimed Connecticut charter school who later led the redevelopment effort in Lower Manhattan after the attacks of 9/11 will be named Connecticut’s next commissioner of education.

Gov. Dannel Malloy is expected to appoint Stefan Pryor, now the deputy mayor of Newark, N.J., to succeed Mark McQuillan, who resigned abruptly in December, citing the stress of the job. Acting Commissioner George Coleman has held the interim post since then.

pryor, stefan

Stefan Pryor

State Board of Education Chairman Allan Taylor confirmed the selection of Pryor but would not comment further. Pryor’s selection was first reported in a story by Hartford Courant columnist Rick Green.

The board, which led a six-month search for the new commissioner, will issue its recommendation of Pryor at its meeting Wednesday, where the new commissioner will be introduced. Pryor is one of five finalists interviewed for the job.

Pryor, 39, a graduate of Yale Law School, was among the founders of the Amistad Academy in New Haven, a high profile public charter school that has had a successful track record with children from low-income families.

The selection of Pryor signals Malloy’s intent to focus on reforming the public education system and is certain to raise eyebrows among the education establishment, including teacher union officials who have sometimes clashed with charter school supporters over funding and other issues.

Pryor’s background indicates he is no stranger to big challenges.

In Newark, Pryor oversees economic development, city planning and housing as part of the administration of Mayor Cory Booker. Before taking that job, he was president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation in charge of rebuilding the area after the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001.

Before 2001, he worked as vice president of the Partnership for New York City, a leading business organization, where he was involved in school reform efforts.

In the mid-1990s, Pryor worked as a policy advisor to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano.

“I’m hearing from folks in New Haven. They think it’s a good choice,” said Sharon Palmer, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Connecticut. “If he is bringing a vision of what charter schools are supposed to be–schools of innovation and creativity–then that’s a good thing.”

“I’m hoping he doesn’t have the ConnCAN vision of charters being competitors with K-12 [schools],” she said, a reference to the New Haven-based organization that has pushed aggressively for school reforms, including more support for charters.

Alex Johnston, ConnCAN’s executive director, knew Pryor when the two men worked for the City of New Haven, Johnston as an official with the New Haven Housing Authority and Pryor as an advisor to DeStefano.

“I think it’s an exciting appointment,” Johnston said. “He’s really an experienced public administrator who has taken on turnaround challenges in New York City and Newark…Think about trying to rebuild Lower Manhattan after 9/11…

“I think we have a rebuilding challenge of our own with a public school system that historically has led the nation but in recent years has fallen behind.”

In Connecticut, Pryor will take on a public school system that has struggled to close one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation, with low-income and minority students trailing far behind more affluent and white students in reading and mathematics. Some critics also have expressed concern that the state failed to win a grant last year in Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion school reform competition. The surrounding states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York all won grants.

“If you can work in Newark and New York City,” you should be able to handle Connecticut,” said Mary Loftus Levine, the recently appointed executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

“I never met him…He has a very interesting background,” she said. “I think having an urban background will be a big plus. My hope is he’ll want to work collaboratively with us and listen to the voices of teachers.”

Attempts to reach Pryor Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Pryor, who has been described as a tireless worker, also has done volunteer work in earthquake-damaged Haiti and Chile alongside one of the nation’s most noted school reformers.

Paul Vallas – former school superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans – said Pryor was a valuable voice in building school systems and other services as those countries recovered from devastating earthquakes.

“He’s a great guy. The governor has made a real smart choice,” Vallas said Wednesday by phone from Haiti, where he has been working for the past 20 months helping to design a publicly funded school system.

Vallas, a proponent of school choice and charter schools, said Pryor is highly respected and has a solid grasp of education issues. “He knows what constitutes good schools – what works and what doesn’t work. He’s not a novice when it comes to education.”

The report of Pryor’s selection also won an enthusiastic response from Frank Carrano, longtime president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers before leaving that post in 1999.

“I’m very excited about the appointment. I knew Stefan from his days as an undergraduate at Yale through his involvement with public schools,” said Carrano, now chairman of the Board of Education in Branford. “I found him to be, as a young man, genuinely interested in making positive changes happen. As a college undergraduate, it’s rare to find those qualities…

“We’ve kept in touch over the years. I know his involvement in the Lower Manhattan project is another example of his willingness to step into a difficult situation. His greatest strengths lie in his ability to bring people together, to collaborate.”

Robert Rader, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education, said of Pryor, “I don’t know him personally, but he has some accomplishments. He has more background in education that we first thought. My understanding is he was the governor’s first choice, and we’ll do what we can to make him successful.”