A ‘change agent’ seeks consensus on school reform

When Gov. Dannel P. Malloy tabbed Stefan Pryor, a charter school founder, as the state’s next education commissioner, the appointment raised eyebrows among some in public education circles.

Would Pryor, whose career has been shaped both inside and outside the education arena, be able to win over a public school establishment that viewed some charter advocates with suspicion?

Those who know him best are betting the answer is yes.


Stefan Pryor

Pryor officially begins his new job Friday, taking over a public education system that boasts some of America’s best schools but also has the nation’s largest academic achievement gap separating the poor from the well-to-do.

Colleagues describe the 39-year-old Yale graduate as a tireless reformer unafraid to try new ideas – not limited to those tested in charter schools – and as a skilled leader able to bring together groups with differing points of view.

“I think he’s practical. He’s not really an ideologue,” said Paul Vallas, a former school superintendent in Chicago, Philadelphia and New Orleans. Pryor worked alongside Vallas as a volunteer in Haiti and Chile as those nations rebuilt school systems after suffering devastating earthquakes last year.

“I don’t think he comes in as a person who sees one model or one solution to addressing the deficiencies that exist in the educational system,” said Vallas, one of the nation’s leading voices in school reform. “I think that he’s a supporter or charter schools without being a critic of traditional schools… In all the projects he’s worked on with me, people liked him. He’s not divisive…He works with diverse groups.”

That was a mark of Pryor’s style in Newark, N.J., too, where he worked as deputy mayor for the past five years to revitalize the struggling city.

“One of his great secrets is he just never looks at sides – this side versus that side,” said Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who has known Pryor since the two were classmates at Yale Law School. “He’s somebody that really [says] let’s all come together, find out where we can agree… and make something happen that can benefit us all.”

Pryor, whose background includes a major role in rebuilding Lower Manhattan, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, was an unconventional choice for the education post. Nevertheless, he had been on Malloy’s radar for months, said Timothy Bannon, the governor’s chief of staff.

Soon after Malloy’s election last year, the governor met Pryor and began thinking about finding a spot for him in the new administration, Bannon said. The governor “was quite taken with his intellect and his grasp of public issues,” said Bannon, who described Pryor as a flexible leader not bound to any single strategy of school reform.

“He is very outcome oriented…The other thing that stands out when you look at his record is he really is able to form a consensus,” he said. “That’s going to be a key to any success in terms of education reform.”

In Connecticut, Pryor will confront thorny, divisive issues such as teacher tenure, pay and evaluation. He must do so in the midst of a slumping economy that has led to teacher layoffs,  school budget cutbacks, and a shrinking staff at the State Department of Education. He takes over an agency that has intervened in two struggling school districts, Windham and Bridgeport, and that has begun reviewing the state’s complicated and often-criticized school aid formula.

Although Pryor’s predecessor, former Commissioner Mark McQuillan, helped win reforms such as more rigorous high school requirements, he never was able to build a strong alliance with former Gov. M. Jodi Rell – a factor, some observers say, in Connecticut’s failure to win a grant last year in the Obama administration’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top school reform competition.

Pryor, by contrast, appears to have the strong backing of Malloy, who has pledged to make education reform a central element of his agenda.

Pryor “has the wind at his back,” said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, co-chairman of the legislature’s Education Committee. “He is a change agent who arrives with a lot of support for change.”

His biggest test will be to shore up lagging academic performance, particularly in schools with large populations of low-income and minority students – a key to restoring Connecticut’s status as a leader in education circles.

Pryor is no stranger to big challenges. After heading the agency charged with rebuilding Lower Manhattan following the attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, he left for Newark, where he worked alongside Booker and played a central role in promoting business development, expanding affordable housing and developing innovative projects such as a mentoring and job training program for former prisoners.

Newark has more than $700 million in construction projects under way or in the pipeline, Booker said. Pryor has been influential in attracting dozens of new businesses, including the first new downtown hotel in nearly 40 years and the headquarters for Panasonic Corporation of North America.

“He presided over probably one of the greatest development periods in our city in the last 60 years, and he did it during the worst economy when people weren’t building, weren’t investing,” Booker said. “He’s a guy who has achieved great success in everything he’s done and really has become one of the more sought-after leaders in America… He was always being wooed by other cities, states, communities.”

Kathryn S. Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit organization of business leaders where Pryor once worked on school reform, described him as pragmatic. “I would say progressive, but not at all confrontational.” she said.

“If you were comparing him and Michelle Rhee, they’re sort of opposite ends of the spectrum,” Wylde said, referring to the former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor, whose aggressive, often blunt style rankled teachers’ unions and made her a controversial figure in school reform.

At the partnership, Pryor worked with two troubled school districts in Brooklyn, focusing heavily on the use of data to monitor student progress and trying strategies such as performance incentives for principals and financial incentives for recruiting teachers, Wylde said.

Pryor is known for devoting long hours to his work, rarely taking time off. “He has total immersion in the work he’s doing,” Wylde said. “He’s a 24/7 guy.”

Booker, who called Pryor one of his closest friends, said, “He’s a guy who has gone at full speed, around-the-clock with the intensity I’ve rarely seen matched by others…Stefan is his work. It’s what he does. It’s who he is…His hobbies were things like leading missions down to Haiti to serve after that disaster.”

Pryor, who is single, is the son of two public school teachers. He grew up and attended public schools in New City, N.Y., a suburb of New York City.

On the day his appointment was announced in Connecticut, Pryor said he will focus on strategies that work, wherever they exist.

“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?”

The search for effective strategies is something Pryor did along with other Yale law students and community leaders in founding Amistad Academy, a successful, high-profile charter school that opened in New Haven in 1999 and became a national model.

“He’s very results focused and people focused,” said Dacia Toll, former Amistad director and now president and CEO of Achievement First, a network of charter schools that includes Amistad and other schools in Connecticut and New York.

“In coming up with a model for Amistad,” Toll said, “we traveled around the country, going as far as Calgary, Canada, to look at schools that were serving kids from low-income backgrounds who have historically been underachieving – yet in these schools, they were achieving breakthrough results.”

Charter schools are publicly supported schools that are free of the usual central office restrictions and union rules. In theory, they are designed to foster experimental approaches that can be expanded to other schools, but critics, including teachers’ union officials in Connecticut, have been at odds with some charter advocates, accusing them of bashing public schools and acting as competitors.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, knows Pryor and believes he has the skill to mend that relationship.

“Part of what he will need to do is reduce that toxicity. That will be both a challenge and opportunity for him, particularly since he comes from the charter school side,” said Weingarten, who remembers Pryor from his school reform work in Brooklyn when she was head of United Federation of Teachers in New York City.

“I think he has seen both the potential of charter schools and the limits of charter schools,” Weingarten said.

She said that Pryor is likely to draw not only on the lessons of charter schools but on other experimental approaches such as a reform-minded teachers’ contract in New Haven. That contract includes a rigorous new evaluation process for teachers, linking their performance to student progress.

The contract has drawn praise from the Obama administration and others, including Pryor.

“The fact that the collective bargaining unit and municipal administration and school district administration came together and grappled with issues and resulted in a contract that everyone felt good about…that’s impressive, and that’s a good model,” Pryor said.

Weingarten said a key element of the New Haven reform is that it reaches an entire district, not just a single school.

“The fact that [Pryor] has looked at the New Haven model…and sees that collaboration as a key lever to school district reform to try to help all kids – not just some kids – I think is very positive,” Weingarten said.

When the Partnership for New York City tested various reforms in Brooklyn schools, Pryor “was pretty honest about what did and didn’t work,” she said. Even when some of the reforms did not work as planned, “the partnership didn’t blame the schools for failure to try,” she said.

“I found him at the time…to be open-minded and flexible, you know, pragmatic,” she added. “It’s about how you help all kids, and the one thing we’ve learned is it’s not so easy.”