Last Friday, Gov. Dannel Malloy confirmed the appointment of interim education commissioner Dianna Wentzell to a permanent position heading the Department of Education.
Wentzell has headed the department since January, when former commissioner Stefan Pryor ’93 LAW ’98 resigned. Although Wentzell did not originally apply for the position, Malloy said at a Friday press conference that he asked Wentzell to consider the job due to her dedication, demeanor and experience as an educator.
“I became convinced that she was the right person at the right time to do this job,” Malloy said. “With her at the helm, we’ll ensure that continuity and stability will be had in the department.”
The state Board of Education originally selected three finalists for the position from a pool of over two dozen applicants. After interviewing the other candidates, Malloy recruited Wentzell to apply for the position.
Wentzell, who has over 25 years of experience working in Connecticut’s public schools, began her career teaching social studies, political science and history and leading gifted education programs in Farmington Public Schools in 1988. She later directed the literacy program at South Windsor Public Schools, and then worked as an administrator for two years in Hartford Public Schools. In 2013, Wentzell joined the state Department of Education as chief academic officer.
“Over the years, I’ve planned and taught more lessons than I can count, and I know that I’ve learned just as many,” Wentzell said at the press conference. “The experience and perspective that I gained in the classroom still helps inform the decisions that I make today.”
Wentzell said during the press conference that, as commissioner, she plans on working closely with the Office of Early Childhood on initiatives Malloy has highlighted in his time in office, such as increasing access to pre-kindergarten for low-income families. Wentzell added that she intends to engage directly with teachers, students, parents and local boards of education.
Previously, teachers unions had criticized Pryor — a lawyer and co-founder of the charter school Amistad Academy — who was appointed by Malloy during his first term as governor, for his stances on controversial subjects such as teacher tenure and using standardized testing results to inform teacher evaluations. Pryor announced in August that he intended to resign after Malloy’s first term ended in January.
Last month, legislators on the Education Committee approved a bill that requires the education commissioner to have had five years of teaching experience and three years of administrative experience — which Pryor lacked.
Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state, said in a Friday press release that Wentzell’s “wealth of practical knowledge about what works in public education” would be a boon for public schools.
“Dr. Wentzell recognizes that genuine collaboration among public education stakeholders will make Connecticut’s already strong public education system even stronger,” Cohen said. “Her willingness to listen — as well as her extensive direct teaching experience in our public schools — makes her a wise choice.”
Elizabeth Carroll, the director of education studies at Yale College, said that as interim commissioner, Wentzell is already familiar with the challenges and opportunities facing Connecticut’s public schools, and that Wentzell’s appointment does not interrupt or slow the momentum of the position in the way that the appointment of another candidate might have.
Carroll added that she is heartened by Wentzell’s intention to focus on Connecticut’s wide achievement gaps.
A report from 2014 stated that although Connecticut’s graduation rate increased from 80.9 percent to 85 percent between 2003 and 2012, the graduation rate for economically disadvantaged students remains at 70 percent.
Wentzell must be confirmed by state legislators before officially assuming the role. She will earn a yearly salary of $192,500.