By Kathleen Megan

Published by Hartford Courant, September 7, 2011

Stefan Pryor had a chance to explain Wednesday how his unorthodox background will work for him as he takes on the state’s long-intractable achievement gap between rich and poor students.

Named Wednesday as Connecticut’s next education commissioner, Pryor was one of the founders of a charter school, Amistad Academy in New Haven, in the 1990s and has been involved in many education projects, including several years working on the reform of impoverished schools in Brooklyn, N.Y.

But Pryor has a law degree, not a doctorate in education, and in the past decade he has worked mainly in economic development, first in Lower Manhattan after Sept. 11 and then as deputy mayor of Newark.

“In my career, I’ve had a chance to observe how a mandate for change and how real progress can emerge from the most difficult of conditions,” Pryor said, “ranging from Lower Manhattan’s recovery from Sept. 11 to Newark’s recovery from decades of disinvestment.”

Pryor, who spoke before the State Board of Education on Wednesday, said he’s had experience “creating teams that can be effective … and working under very difficult circumstances to achieve progress.”

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who presented Pryor at the board meeting, said he was convinced that Pryor had the “right collaborative skills.”

“I think I have to acknowledge that this is outside the box,” Malloy said of his choice for education commissioner. Malloy noted that both he and the State Board of Education agreed on Pryor.

“Stefan is the right candidate to bring about all of the changes to move the state in the direction of guaranteeing” success for all students, Malloy said.

Pryor, who went to Yale for college and law school and completed the university’s teacher preparation program, said there were “bright spots and best practices” and “excellent schools and exemplary districts” in Connecticut.

“But there are also too many places where students are not fulfilling their potential, where the performances are simply too low and the college prospects, career prospects and life prospects are not what they should be,” Pryor said. “We must respond with real and sustained urgency. We are one of the most affluent states in the country. We simply cannot permit these inadequate and inequitable conditions to persist.”

Rep. Andrew Fleischmann, D-West Hartford, who is co-chairman of the legislature’s education committee, noted that Pryor is technically the “interim” commissioner, because his appointment must be approved by the legislature. Fleischmann said this could happen as early as the special session this fall or during the next legislative session, which starts in February. Pryor, 39, will start the $188,000-a-year job in October.

After Malloy’s announcement, Pryor quickly showed the collaborative skills that those who work with him have described, as he made his way around the Legislative Office Building hearing room, greeting education leaders from the state, private and nonprofit sectors.

Shaking hands with Sharon Palmer, who is president of the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut, Pryor told her that he would get together with her soon.

Palmer said she was glad to hear that he wanted to meet soon.

Mary Loftus Levine, who is executive director of Connecticut Education Association, another teachers’ union, said that Pryor has “reached out to us, which I think is a good sign.”

Pryor said that his first priority will be to “get out and start consulting stakeholders as to their perceptions and perspectives. … Certainly the governor and the state board and I have points of views, but we really want to get a sense from the ground and from multiple perspectives as to what’s important.”

Pryor said that he intends to have discussions in various forums on issues, including the achievement gap and on how to best intervene and assist low-performing schools.

He said that he also wants to ensure that young people acquire the skills they need to get jobs and that teachers receive needed professional development.

On teaching, he said, “We need to improve the evaluation system, improve the way compensation works; improve the career ladder, improve the retirement system and the removal mechanisms. It’s the whole array of strategies related to talent in our school system.”

As to whether Pryor’s background in charter schools might make him partial to that approach, he said: “I think it’s important that we look at schools not in terms of their governance model, but in terms of results. … The question is not how a school is structured. The question is whether the school is providing outstanding student outcomes.”

Although his work in Newark has had educational elements, Pryor said he was looking forward to his new job. Education “is where my heart is.”

As the child of two public school teachers, Pryor said that “education is in my blood. I watched every evening as my parents prepared their lesson plans for the next day on the kitchen table. I got to know the profession up close in that fashion.”

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