Ryan Stewart obviously is unafraid of a challenge.

As Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s secretary-designate for the Public Education Department, the 38-year-old needs to learn quickly about New Mexico’s diverse educational community, continue reforms to improve education and meet requirements of a lawsuit that has held the state isn’t serving at-risk and low-income children adequately. Oh, and he is replacing a much-respected educator fired because the governor was unhappy with her performance.

Job expectations are high, with success — with parents and students the best judges — the only acceptable result.

Simply growing to understand the ins and outs of the state’s complicated funding formula is a challenge for anyone not familiar with the structure of New Mexico’s educational system; Stewart also has to guide the transition to new teacher evaluations and standardized tests for students.

All of this, while a hard-to-please — and that’s as it should be — governor is looking over his shoulder to ensure this singular opportunity to boost public schools is not squandered. It’s a big haul for the onetime classroom teacher and current educational innovator at a Philadelphia-based national nonprofit dedicated to assisting low-income students of color.

The question, of course, is can he meet the challenge?

We are cautiously optimistic, mostly because of Stewart’s demeanor as he was introduced last week. He said his first job is to learn, and that’s always a smart strategy in unfamiliar waters. Like the deputy secretaries now leading the Public Education Department, Stewart has taught students. He was a science and algebra teacher after graduating from Stanford University, giving up a more lucrative career. He has worked in administration in the Philadelphia school system.

In meeting the public at a news conference, Stewart made this welcome statement: “I will always be guided by my experience as a classroom teacher.”

And it is the perspective of a teacher that too often has been lost in the rush to education reform. Whether reducing curriculum to what can be repeated on a test or introducing punitive evaluation systems, respect for teachers has been watered down in the last decade. Respecting teachers, though, does not mean giving teacher unions the biggest say. Currently some are suggesting that only new teachers be evaluated. That’s the wrong approach.

The right approach is collaborative but rigorous. We make no apologies for demanding better schools, higher standards and improved educational results. We can move on from the reforms championed by former Gov. Susana Martinez and her handpicked secretary, Hanna Skandera, that were edicts from on high that failed to involve the learning community. Education, after all, is not only a set of theories or sound bites delivered by “experts” who never had to grade papers or teach children who are hungry.

No, education is the special magic that takes place in a classroom. When it works, that enthusiasm for learning carries over into the home life of a child who leaves school excited to share her knowledge with the world. It envelops the family, whether it’s one with parents who can help with homework or those who are working three jobs and barely have time to sleep. It propels that child to a successful life as an adult, someone who remains curious and wants to know more about the world around her. It’s about putting kids first.

Making sure that magic happens — for every student in all of our schools — will determine whether Stewart succeeds. On his second day on the job, Stewart met New Mexico students and teachers in Albuquerque and Belen, including a stop at the Native American Community Academy.

When he returns to start the job full time in September, we hope his next visits are to rural New Mexico schools — challenges in urban settings in California and Pennsylvania are far different than those in isolated areas, whether in a village or at a pueblo. Just the length of the bus rides alone can be a challenge.

We encourage Stewart to bring his fresh perspectives with him, especially the knowledge he has gained in working to improve education for at-risk children. That’s the challenge for much of New Mexico, after all. At the same time, he must be willing to listen to those who understand New Mexico culture and traditions. Bilingual education here isn’t just Spanish and English or even Vietnamese and English. It is Spanish in some places and Tewa, Towa, Tiwa, Keres, Navajo, Apache and other Native languages elsewhere. We would wager that urban Philadelphia offers a more diverse educational setting, but that New Mexico’s diversity is a more complex creature. A steep learning curve awaits.

And may it be a successful one, with a secretary-designate who respects educators, holds them and himself to account and spends taxpayer dollars wisely. That’s when the educational transformation New Mexico students deserve will happen. With our children learning, the future becomes brighter. For them. For us. For our state.

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