HARTFORD — Dianna L. Wentzell, a 25-year veteran of Connecticut’s public school system, was nominated by the governor Friday as the new state education commissioner.
The state school board took one minute to vote unanimously to approve Wentzell, who has served as interim commissioner since the resignation of former Commissioner Stefan Pryor.
A former classroom teacher, Wentzell is the chief academic officer for the state education department. She has served as an assistant superintendent and deputy chief academic officer in Hartford public schools and worked in South Windsor as the director of literacy, assessment and instructional improvement.
She must now appear before the legislature’s nominations committee and be confirmed by a legislative vote.
“Connecticut is home to incredible students, great teachers and fantastic schools,” Wentzell said in a statement. “However, we have much more work to do to ensure that all students are afforded the opportunity and advantages of high expectations and a high-quality education.”
Malloy said that after working with Wentzell in recent months as interim commissioner, he encouraged her to seek the permanent job.
“I pulled the commissioner aside, and I had a conversation with her,” Malloy said Friday. “She was not initially a candidate. I asked her to consider being a candidate, and once she agreed to be a candidate, I asked the State Board of Education to review her qualifications.”
Although some educators had been critical of Pryor’s tenure, Malloy said: “I think we had a great commissioner.”
“I think making change anywhere in the world is difficult,” he said. “Making change in Connecticut has long been thought to be impossible. That’s why you need change agents from time to time. Having said that, we have accomplished, legislatively and otherwise, many of the changes that we needed to bring about.”
Wentzell was not among the three educators identified last month as finalists for the commissioner’s job: East Hartford Superintendent Nate Quesnel, Bridgeport interim Superintendent Fran Rabinowitz and Massachusetts Deputy Education Commissioner Alan Ingram. Rabinowitz later took herself out of consideration.
Reached Friday afternoon, Quesnel said that Wentzell is a “fantastic pick for the governor.”
“Dianna is someone who is a proven leader who gets it, putting kids first, and she will do incredible work moving all of our efforts forward and making sure our schools are great places,” said Quesnel, co-chairman of Malloy’s Common Core Task Force. “I’m looking forward to working with her.”
Reform advocacy groups in the state also began offering praise shortly after Wentzell was nominated to the permanent post.
ConnCAN, an educational advocacy group and a supporter of Pryor, said that Wentzell has “proven her commitment to Connecticut’s kids.”
“For nearly three decades, she has worked diligently to ensure that all students have access to an education that will prepare them for success in college and career,” ConnCAN CEO Jennifer Alexander said in a statement.
Jeffrey Villar, executive director of the Connecticut Council for Education Reform, said that Wentzell “believes that all Connecticut students deserve an excellent education — without exception.”
But outspoken Malloy critic Jonathan Pelto, a former state legislator, quickly slammed Wentzell’s nomination on his blog, noting her role in implementing the state’s new standardized testing that is aligned with the controversial Common Core State Standards.
As interim commissioner, Wentzell “has dramatically increased her effort to undermine Connecticut’s system of public education with the Common Core, the Common Core testing scheme and Malloy’s unfair and unprofessional teacher evaluation system,” Pelto wrote.
Pelto also argued that her nomination was indicative of the Malloy administration’s “anti-student, anti-parent, anti-teacher and anti-public school agenda.”
Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, pointed out Friday that Wentzell’s professional experience is steeped in public schools.
Pryor, a charter school co-founder, had a Yale law degree and spent years working mainly in economic development when he was appointed by Malloy in September 2011 to lead the state’s education department.
Pryor stepped down after Malloy’s re-election last fall and is now the secretary of commerce in Rhode Island.
“We are pleased that Gov. Malloy has acknowledged the voice of public school teachers regarding their desire that the next commissioner be a public school educator,” Cohen said. “We have found her to be a dedicated educator and sound collaborator with keen insights gathered on the front lines of public education.”
Wentzell holds a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of Hartford, as well as a master’s in educational leadership from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She received a bachelor’s degree in Russian Studies in 1986 from Mount Holyoke College.
A former Fulbright Scholar in Pakistan, Wentzell, 50, will be earning $192,500 a year in her new position.
Reform advocates and state officials have praised Pryor for steering more funding to struggling schools and raising standards. But he also faced several controversies during his tenure, such as a teacher rating system that was partly tied to student test scores and the charter-school scandal involving the Family Urban Schools of Excellence, a Hartford organization that once counted Pryor as a supporter.
Gwen Samuel, president of the Connecticut Parents Union, said she believed that “Pryor was attacked from day one” for his reform efforts and that she hoped Wentzell would maintain an “open-door policy” with families.
“One thing Stefan did well, I will say, is we were able to speak with him as parents,” Samuel said. “So whether we agreed or disagreed with his views, we were able to reach him.”
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