Ryan Stewart, an executive with an educational nonprofit that works to improve education for minority students, was named Monday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to become New Mexico’s next secretary of public education.
Stewart, who grew up in Texas, taught in California and most recently worked in Philadelphia schools, had run the mid-Atlantic branch of Partners in School Innovation since December 2017. The 38-year-old is new to the state and the role of managing an organization the size of the Public Education Department.
He takes command a few weeks after Lujan Grisham fired Karen Trujillo from her Cabinet, saying she failed to meet expectations after six months heading the agency. Deputy Secretary Kara Bobroff ran the department on an interim basis while a search was conducted.
Monday was a day of introductions for Stewart, who met the department’s leadership team a little more than an hour before speaking at a news conference at the Capitol to announce his arrival.
“We go back probably about 90 minutes in terms of our relationship,” Stewart said of the deputy secretaries standing behind him and Lujan Grisham. “So I need to a do a lot of work with them to understand what has been done before I can make any policy decisions. This is my first day.”
“This is his first moments in New Mexico,” added Lujan Grisham.
Deputy Secretaries Bobroff, Katarina Sandoval, Gwen Perea Warniment, and Tim Hand, who were hired by Trujillo and together have a century of experience in New Mexico’s public schools, will continue to work under Stewart as the department implements sweeping reforms mandated by lawmakers along with an additional $480 million for public education in Lujan Grisham’s first budget as governor.
Stewart said that financial commitment — resulting in higher teacher salaries, extended school years, a new standardized test, and new evaluation systems for teachers and schools — attracted him to the job.
“The governor made the incredible case that when you come to New Mexico, there is an opportunity to take a state that hasn’t yet fulfilled its potential but that’s investing in it,” Stewart said. “The Legislature and the Governor’s Office are aligned to make improvements. You’re going to have strong investment and support to make a difference for kids.”
At Partners in School Innovation, Stewart worked with a staff of five to provide professional development and data analysis to a network of 22 schools in North Philadelphia. Stewart previously served as a special assistant to the superintendent and director of innovation in the School District of Philadelphia, the eighth-largest district in the country.
Stewart also has worked as lead mentor at the nonprofit New Teacher Center, advising new educators — particularly middle school math and science teachers — as well as principals and district personnel on professional development and data analysis.
He started his career in education as an algebra and science teacher at Cesar Chavez Academy in the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto, Calif. and earned his bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University and his doctorate in education leadership from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Though department secretaries under former Gov. Susana Martinez, who left office in December, were heavily criticized for their lack of familiarity with New Mexico and its 89 public school districts, a teachers union leader said Monday that union representatives aren’t worried about Stewart’s lack of experience in the state.
Mary Parr-Sánchez, president of National Education Association New Mexico, which has 8,000 members, said Stewart’s work with low-income students should serve him well.
“I have a lot of confidence in the deputies, and I think the new secretary brings the experience that he needs working with students who haven’t been successful in the past,” said Parr-Sánchez. “I think that combination is going to be a good combination.”
Parr-Sánchez also said Stewart was making a good first impression by scheduling conference calls with teachers and a round-table discussion with school leaders for Tuesday.
When asked if Stewart had been a candidate for the position when Trujillo was appointed in January, Lujan Grisham deflected. Spokesman Tripp Stelnicki later confirmed to the New Mexican that Stewart had not been among the original candidates.
Lujan Grisham said, “We talked to the deputy secretaries, and potential secretaries and the current secretaries about leadership, vision, management, expertise, problem solving, and having to do 10 jobs at once. [Stewart] rose to the top because educators nationally told me that we should take a look at Ryan and we did.”
Stewart will be the secretary-designate until he is confirmed by the state Senate, which will not meet until the next legislative session in January.