Ryan Stewart hasn’t driven west to Gallup, east to Clovis or south to Las Cruces. The Texan-turned-Californian-turned-Pennsylvanian — brand new to New Mexico — acknowledges he still has much to learn about his new home.
But inside his first minutes as the state’s new public education secretary, Stewart promised he will crisscross New Mexico’s wide open spaces to discover what makes the state’s struggling K-12 educational system tick.
“I come to this position as an outsider. I’m new to New Mexico and new to the rich assets and cultural heritage that define New Mexico,” Stewart said Monday at a news conference alongside Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “I’m going to hit the ground running, getting to the four corners of the state, working with this team to understand where we already are and what we’re going to build.”
Stewart’s arrival in Santa Fe was a long time coming — built on a willingness to travel and learn.
Before graduating from Martin High School in Arlington, Texas, in 1999, Stewart interned for both the local city manager’s office and his congressman’s office in Washington He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from Stanford University in 2003 and completed a three-year program at Harvard in 2014 to receive a Ph.D in education leadership.
Stewart said he began his teaching career in 2003 through Teach for America, a nonprofit that places recent college graduates in low-income schools. He started at Cesar Chavez Academy in the Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto Calif.
After three years as a math and science teacher, Stewart stayed in California to work with Ravenswood City and other school districts for five more years as a mentor and outreach coordinator for the New Teacher Center, a nonprofit dedicated to professional development for beginning teachers.
Gina Sudaria, the interim superintendent in the Ravenswood City district who was a vice principal when Stewart was a teacher there, said she first became aware of Stewart when some of his teaching practices were recommended to teachers across the district. Sudaria said Stewart excelled at understanding how to improve classroom performance for different teachers in diverse schools.
“He was very great in a strength-based approach with teachers. It’s not top-down, ‘you need to do it this way,’ and hope it goes well,” Sudaria said. “He’s extremely talented at meeting teachers or schools where they are and empowering them to improve.”
Starting in July 2013, Stewart began working as a special assistant to the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, where he developed a new principal evaluation system, a new student funding model and wrote the district’s guide to school budgets and first comprehensive school leader handbook, according to Stewart’s résumé provided by the Governor’s Office.
After one school year in that role, Stewart spent 2½ years as the Philadelphia district’s executive director of school improvement and innovation, where he managed 10 principals in the design and implementation of a community-based school transformation process.
Since December 2017, Stewart has served as the executive director of the mid-Atlantic branch of the nonprofit Partners in School Innovation, where he worked alongside principals and teachers to support a network of 22 schools in North Philadelphia while intensely focusing on four.
Derek Mitchell, the CEO of Partners in School Innovation, said Stewart’s small network of schools outperformed the rest of the city.
“School transformation is natural to him,” Mitchell said. “A focus on poor kids of color is his life’s work. On any project or program, Ryan can sniff them out and determine if they can actually help teachers, and if they can’t, he’s not going to let it go.
“In New Mexico, I imagine a lot of programs are going to be sharpened in their ability to help teachers and kids,” Mitchell continued. “And lot of tough questions are going to be asked of those programs that aren’t helping.”
At the news conference, Stewart talked about K-5 Plus, a voluntary program for teachers and students which adds 25 days to the school year — one that did not reach as many schools this summer as the Governor’s Office and Legislature had hoped. He also touched on teacher evaluations and statewide assessment as new investments he is looking forward to building upon.
Meanwhile, he’s also focused on learning what makes the state unique.
“As I’m quickly coming to learn, I need to fully embrace and love Hatch green chile like a true New Mexican,” Stewart said. “I’m excited to get to know the full breadth of the Land of Enchantment.”