State Board To Recommend A Non-Traditional Education Commissioner
Stefan Pryor has spent years in economic development; his passion for education goes back to his Yale years
By KATHLEEN MEGAN
September 07, 2011
Stefan Pryor doesn't have a traditional background in education, but many people Tuesday expressed high expectations for him as Connecticut's likely next education commissioner.
Pryor, 39, who is deputy mayor of Newark, N.J., and one of the founders of the public charter school Amistad Academy in New Haven, is expected to be named to the position at a state Board of Education meeting Wednesday.
"I'm very optimistic about the things that Mr. Pryor will be able to do," said state Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, co-chair of the legislature's education committee. "I'm sure there are various stakeholders in the education world who are anxious because he's not cut from the traditional cloth. He doesn't have an [doctorate in education]. He's not a former superintendent of schools."
But Fleischmann said, "I think we are at a crossroads where bold innovation will be needed. He strikes me as a person who will be open to bold innovation."
State Board of Education Chairman Allan Taylor confirmed the selection of Pryor Tuesday, but said he would not comment further until Wednesday's meeting.
Pryor will replace Mark McQuillan, who resigned in December; George Coleman has served as interim commissioner since then.
Pryor was not available for comment Tuesday but is expected to attend Wednesday's Board of Education meeting with Gov.Dannel P. Malloy.
Mark Linabury, spokesman for the state Department of Education, said that the board will make its recommendation to Malloy and that later the legislature will go through an approval process.
Fleischmann said he expects the legislature to approve Pryor's appointment unless the executive and nominations committee finds "some sort of information that's troubling." But that's unlikely, he said, because Pryor's career has been so public.
A graduate of Yale College, Yale Law School and the university's teacher preparation program, Pryor served as an alderman in New Haven and as an aide to New Haven Mayor John DeStefano in the 1990s. Later, Pryor became the first employee hired by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp., the agency that planned the redevelopment after the Sept. 11 attacks.
DeStefano said he has found Pryor to be a "collaborative leader … I've seen him go into cities where he is not a native — New York City, Newark — and build successful teams, organizations and institutions."
"He is well-versed on how you organize adults around kids to make successful academic experiences," DeStefano said. "He gets folks to work on the same team... to make a change in direction, a change in mission. Frankly, the state department of education desperately needs that."
Though Pryor has focused on economic development in recent years, those who know him and have worked closely with him say education is his passion. Born in upstate New York, Pryor's parents both were school teachers.
Dacia Toll was at Yale law with Pryor when they they became interested in starting the school that eventually became Amistad Academy.
"For a number of us, it's been said that the achievement gap is the civil rights issue of our time," said Toll, who is now president of Achievement First, which oversees a network of charter schools including Amistad Academy. "I know he felt similarly. From a social justice perspective, most roads lead back to education."
Toll said Pryor sets "incredibly high expectations for himself and others. ... He is a reformer, but he is a collaborator who is able to work effectively with a diverse group and unite them around a bold agenda."
In the late '90s, Pryor ran the Partnership for New York City's "Breakthrough for Learning" effort — a program that introduced educational reform strategies to impoverished neighborhoods inBrooklyn.
Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, said Pryor was "a very young education guru. He was considered a thought leader in the education world."
"He was able to bridge some very tough divisions between unions, community school boards, education departments and the business community," Wylde said.
Described by one colleague as "married to his work," Pryor, who is single, is known for taking very little vacation time and, when he does take it, using it to volunteer his help after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and after the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.
Mary Loftus Levine, who is executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said she hopes that Pryor sees charter schools as "incubators for innovation" that could provide ideas for public schools, rather than as competition.
Of Pryor's credentials, Levine said, "I certainly think that having an urban vision is critical because that's where we really need to focus our attention."
But, she said, "I don't really know enough about him. I don't feel comfortable judging someone before they even begin."
Sharon Palmer, who is president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, said Pryor is "kind of an unknown quantity. I'm trying to check with our national to see if they have any read on him. ... I'm hopefully optimistic that he is going to be somebody that we can collaborate with on school reform.
"I would be a little happier if he had some classroom experience," Palmer added, "but it isn't absolutely necessary."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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