New education commissioner tackles a different challenge

After helping rebuild Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 attacks and heading economic development efforts in Newark, N.J., a confident Stefan Pryor came to Connecticut Wednesday to tackle another daunting challenge.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy introduced Pryor as the man to lead the effort to close the state’s worst-in-the-nation public school achievement gap separating the poor from the well-to-do.

pryor, stefan

Stefan Pryor: ‘Real progress can emerge from the most difficult of conditions’

“In my career I’ve had to opportunity to observe how a mandate for change and how real progress can emerge from the most difficult of conditions–ranging from Lower Manhattan’s recovery from Sept. 11 to Newark’s recovery from decades of disinvestment,” Pryor said moments after the State Board of Education unanimously recommended him as the state’s new commissioner of education.

In Connecticut, he said, “There are excellent schools and there are exemplary districts, but there are also too many places where students are not fulfilling their potential…This situation merits a mandate for change.”

Pryor, who will begin duties the first week in October, succeeds Mark McQuillan, who resigned abruptly in December, citing the stress of the job. Acting Commissioner George Coleman has held the interim post since then

The 39-year-old Pryor, deputy mayor in Newark, is an unconventional choice for the state’s top education job, a post that traditionally has attracted administrators with long careers in the education establishment.

“I have to acknowledge this [choice] is outside the box, but circumstances dictate we get it right,” Malloy said during a press conference before the State Board of Education.

A Yale Law School graduate, Pryor has some background in the field of education. He was part of Yale’s Teacher Preparation Program and was among the founders of the acclaimed Amistad Academy, a New Haven charter school that has had a successful record working with low-income children.

Before taking on the post-9/11 reconstruction effort in 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.

The selection of Pryor signals Malloy’s intent to focus on reforming the public education system and challenging traditional practices involving school finance, teacher quality, accountability and other issues.

“I steadfastly believe that all of our children deserve a quality educational experience…and I think Stefan is the right candidate to bring about all of the changes to move this state in the direction of guaranteeing that success,” Malloy said. “We have to hold ourselves to a higher standard than that which we have talked about in the past.”

“What this needs to be about is results,” said Malloy, who linked the performance of public schools to the creation of a vital workforce. “I think Stefan is the right candidate to do this,” he said, citing Pryor’s record in Newark on economic development, housing, employment and workforce issues.

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.

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

Pryor was one of five finalists interviewed for the job of shaping the state’s public education system. His annual salary will be $185,000.

His past affiliation with Amistad could stir doubts within the education establishment, including teacher union officials who have sometimes clashed with charter school supporters over funding and other issues. Nevertheless, union leaders and others at Wednesday’s press conference said Pryor made a good first impression.

“We like his credentials. We’ll see what it all brings about,” said Phil Apruzzese, president of the Connecticut Education Association. “He’s proven himself in many venues.”

Among his toughest challenges is the lagging performance of many low-income and minority students, an achievement gap that has stubbornly defied years of efforts and dozens of programs designed to fix it.

He said there are examples of successful schools and classrooms that can be replicated on a larger scale.

“I think it’s important we look at schools not in terms of their governance model but in terms of their results–whether we’re talking about conventional public schools or magnet schools or charter schools or vo-ag or tech schools,” he said. “The question is not how is a school structured. The question is: How is a school providing for outstanding student outcomes?”

He also said a key focus will be the quality of those who teach and who lead schools. That includes issues such as training, evaluation, and pay.

“We need to recruit the best for our classrooms and our principals’ offices,” said Pryor, the son of two public school teachers.

Pryor said one of his first jobs will be to meet those with a stake in education, “from teachers to students, from parents to principals, from labor leaders to business leaders–to create, prioritize and refine our agenda.

As he left Wednesday’s board meeting, Pryor appeared to get a head start on that task, moving easily among leaders of various education groups, offering greetings and pledging to listen.

His background outside the field of education could be a plus, said State Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, the co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee.

“Someone said he seems like an out-of-the-box pick,” Fleischmann said. “My response was, we have out-of-the-box problems.”