Lessons in what works: the school Pryor helped build

NEW HAVEN — State Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor returned Wednesday to the charter school he founded years ago with a message: Barriers are preventing more of these great schools from opening or expanding.

He promised to change that.


Education Commissioner Stefan Pryor with children in New Haven’s Amistad Academy.

“The shackles continue to be broken every day … What an incredible victory,” he said of Amistad Academy’s impressive record. Among the school’s accomplishments are that significantly more of its students are proficient on state writing, math, reading and science tests than public school students in New Haven, where Amistad is located.

Students appreciated Pryor’s praise, and made sure that he knew it by snapping their fingers and chanting — a nontraditional educational approach known as mnemonics that Pryor himself helped create when opening Amistad years ago with a group of Yale Law School classmates.

But Pryor reflected that getting to this point was not easy. It took years of lobbying state legislators for approval and private philanthropic and business groups for funds before Amistad’s doors even opened.

Dacia Toll, another of the school’s founders, summed up those efforts for the students and top state lawmakers in the audience Wednesday: “We were scrappy and we learned how to get by.”

Pryor’s involvement with the New Haven charter school raised eyebrows in public education circles when he was named commissioner in September, some wondering if there would soon be an increase in the number of these schools in the state.

The commissioner answered that question candidly.

“Yes,” he said Wednesday. “It’s important that all effective schools be able to expand. … My answer is a strong yes.”

Just two new charter schools have opened in Connecticut in the past six years, although applications to open 20 were filed. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Education, less than 1 percent of public school students attend charters, and Connecticut ranks well below the national average.

The real test though will come Dec. 26, when Pryor’s department will either approve or reject seven applications to open additional charter schools in Hartford, New Haven, Norwalk, Norwich and Waterbury for 1,600 students. But it doesn’t end there, finding the funding from the state will be the next test.

“It is certainly the case our state needs to be more welcoming of effective school models,” he said, referring to the whole process as “too burdensome”.

During his current tour of schools in the state, Pryor’s goal has been to point out “effective” schools and practices, while promising to drastically expand them.

That brought him to Thomas Hooker, a public school in Meriden, on Monday and to New Haven Wednesday to meet with members of the teachers union. New Haven is one of the first districts in Connecticut to link teacher evaluations to student performance. This is part of an approach to school reform that has been promoted by the Obama administration and will soon be required in other Connecticut districts under a new state law. Pryor said he wants other districts to emulate parts of that historic agreement between teachers unions, parents and school administrators.