HARTFORD — Gov. Dannel Malloy’s choice to fill the state’s top education post, Stefan Pryor ’93 LAW ’98, has deep roots in both Yale and New Haven.
A former Ward 1 alderman, Pryor helped found one of the nation’s first charter schools, Amistad Academy, after working for Mayor John DeStefano Jr. as a policy aide on issues including the city’s public schools. When he takes the helm of the state’s Department of Education in October, Pryor will return to Connecticut from a decade spent primarily in economic development efforts as head of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and as deputy mayor of Newark, N.J.
At a press conference Wednesday in the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Malloy acknowledged that Pryor, who has no professional classroom experience, is an “out-of-the-box choice.” But the diversity of Pryor’s experiences, many of them related to education, make him the right candidate for education commissioner as the state struggles to boost scores in underperforming districts and narrow a persistent racial achievement gap, Malloy said.
“Stefan Pryor is the whole package,” he said. “His experience working as a turnaround leader in the economic development arena, combined with his leadership on education issues, will help him turn the Department of Education into an agency that helps prepare our state’s children for whichever path they choose.”
Pryor, 39, came to New Haven from New City, N.Y., a suburb of New York City.
A psychology major, he completed Yale’s Teacher Preparation Program by practicing teaching at High School in the Community, a New Haven public school.
Veteran New Haven aldermen that remember Pryor from his time serving on the Board of Aldermen in 1993 and 1994 said Malloy made an excellent choice in Pryor, whom they described as wise beyond his years.
“A lot of his colleagues would often forget how young and inexperienced he was,” President of the Board and Ward 29 Alderman Carl Goldfield.
Among Ward 1 aldermen, Pryor was one of the most mature and aware of the problems confronting the city at large despite still being an undergraduate, Ward 5 Alderman Jorge Perez said.
As a member of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation since 2002 and the agency’s head since 2005, Pryor was a leading figure in New York City’s rebuilding efforts in the wake of 9/11. Since 2006, Pryor has been a close aide to his fellow law school alum, Newark Mayor Cory Booker LAW ’97, as the city’s deputy mayor for economic development.
In his new job, Pryor, the son of two public schoolteachers, faces the challenge of narrowing one of the widest educational achievement gaps in the nation.
“There are certainly bright spots, best practices and exemplary districts throughout Connecticut, but in too many areas performance is too low, and college, career and life prospects are not what they should be,” Pryor told Board of Education members and reporters Wednesday. The achievement gap requires “real and sustained urgency,” he said, and is unacceptable in one of the nation’s most affluent states.
The background that will inform Pryor’s tenure as he confronts the state’s education challenges is one steeped in New Haven and the beginnings of the charter school movement.
Amistad Academy, the public charter middle school he founded in 1999 with Dacia Toll LAW ’99, is now part of a network of 19 nationally acclaimed charter schools called Achievement First. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Education highlighted Amistad as one of seven schools nationwide that serve as models in closing the racial achievement gap.
Though she was elected after Pryor’s departure from the Board, Ward 7 Alderwoman Frances “Bitsie” Clark said she remembered Pryor as an education visionary.
But despite fond recollections by his New Haven acquaintances and electric applause by Board of Education members and spectators as Malloy introduced Pryor Wednesday, not every stakeholder in the state’s public education system reacted positively to the governor’s pick.
Pryor’s involvement in the charter school movement, which has clashed over the past decade with advocates of traditional public education, raised some suspicion among teachers’ unions that his perspective on education might differ from theirs. As the state’s schools chief, Pryor will likely push for measures such as teacher evaluations, lengthened school days,and other proposals that have drawn opposition by teachers’ unions, Clark predicted.
Malloy would have done better to pick a commissioner who has had experience teaching in public school classrooms, Eric Bailey, spokesman for the Connecticut chapter of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).
“Someone who has actually taught in a public school has a deeper understanding of the work that needs to be done,” Bailey said.
But the Connecticut AFT is reserving judgment for the time being, Bailey said, adding that teachers are open to working with Pryor.
Pryor’s first boss in government, DeStefano, said Pryor’s leadership is likely to be collaborative, not confrontative.
“In a politically charged environment, where you’re either pro- or anti-union, pro- or anti-charter schools, Stefan knows how to build powerful relationships,” Destefano told the News
The Board of Education unanimously recommended Pryor Wednesday. Pryor, who will be paid a salary of $185,000, will assume the commissioner post in October.