Meet Ryan Stewart, New Mexico's new secretary of public education

Dillon Mullan
The Santa Fe New Mexican
Ryan Stewart, left at podium, speaks at a news conference in the state Capitol building Monday, Aug. 12, 2019, in Santa Fe.

By the time Ryan Stewart returned for his senior year at Stanford University, the future he started planning in high school had lost all appeal.

After graduation, he had intended to take his economics degree to Wall Street.

But a summer internship with Morgan Stanley convinced Stewart finance wasn't all that fulfilling. On the other hand, he always looked forward to volunteering at local public schools to help students with math or English.

"When I got back to campus after that internship and reflected on what I like and what gives me energy," Stewart recalled, "I just felt more passionate about the education route and working with kids."

That path has landed Stewart, 38, in Santa Fe as the secretary-designate of the state Public Education Department — the new point man in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's effort to overhaul the state's public schools. After his first week in the state, legislators and school officials say they're hopeful Stewart has the experience to make a difference.

Though some remain wary — well aware of the massive obstacles that face a state where K-12 performance is near the bottom in most national surveys — others seem willing to give Stewart the benefit of the doubt.

At least for now.

"I think the great thing about him is for the last 10 years, his focus has been minority students in poverty. Of course, that is exactly the work we have to do in our state," said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque.

Legislators say it's vital the Public Education Department and lawmakers reach an understanding about what districts and schools need before the start of the next legislative session in January — in part because after many years of reform efforts that have had inconclusive results, New Mexico schools are at a crossroads.

"It's all hands on deck for education in New Mexico at this point. We've all got to be on the same page heading into the next session," said Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, the House Education Committee chairman and an American history teacher at Atrisco Heritage Academy High School in Albuquerque.

"Speaking as an educator, I think there is definitely a learning curve for (Stewart) in terms of what we've been going through for the past 10 years," Romero said. "There's a lot to learn, but I think we definitely have a road map from the last session that serves as a foundation for things we're looking to do."

Stewart's résumé reflects his background in educational reform: After rebuffing investment banking, he taught middle school math and science for three years in East Palo Alto, Calif., to students who primarily spoke Spanish as their first language. For the next five years with the nonprofit New Teacher Center, he worked in the same California district as a mentor to a dozen new teachers at a time.

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Stewart then enrolled in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which brought him to a yearlong residency with the School District of Philadelphia, where he said he learned about school funding by reviewing every line item of the district's $3 billion budget. Stewart stayed at that district, which has over 200,000 students, for the next 2 1/2 years as a director of school improvement and innovation before taking a job with the nonprofit Partners in School Innovation in December 2017. In that role, he oversaw a staff of five working in a network of 22 schools in North Philadelphia that primarily served poor African American students.

In his nonprofit role, Stewart said, he was in charge of changing the culture at traditionally low-performing schools — a task he approached with a willingness to have tough conversations about the ways schools weren't working.

"Unfortunately, in many schools, you come in and you keep doing what you did before," Stewart said. "And you step back and say, 'I don't know what our vision is.' That's one thing I've found in all my different roles: A big part of change is getting that vision established and set and communicated and shared.

"Making sure everybody has that clear sense of purpose is one of my big tasks, and setting the vision for what that looks like is something I feel really confident about," he added. "Leading with our compelling 'why' is something I feel confident about."

For Stewart, the why is simple: New Mexico has long languished with one of the nation's worst-performing public education systems. To change that, he said the Public Education Department — often at odds with the state's 89 school districts during the terms of former Gov. Susana Martinez — must be more responsive to districts and schools while ensuring all of its work is in service of improving student performance.

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Those goals will be helped by the investment of money, time and priority that education has gotten with Lujan Grisham and the current Legislature.

This summer, a large chunk of the investment was left on the table with the K-5 Plus program, which adds 25 days to the school year, is voluntary for students and requires that the same teacher stay with the same group of students during the upcoming school year.

The budget Lujan Grisham signed in April had appropriated nearly $120 million for K-5 Plus. In May, Stewart's predecessor, Karen Trujillo — fired last month for not meeting the governor's expectations — told the Legislative Finance Committee that her department planned to spend $53 million to bring K-5 Plus to 25,000 New Mexico students over the summer.

In the end, the department spent only $39.7 million on the program and had 23,139 students enrolled.

"We had some things that didn't work. Let's make sure we learn from them and try things that are going to be a little bit more implementable and successful at the district level," Stewart said of the K-5 Plus rollout. "I think there's going to be a lot more working with the superintendents and teacher groups to make sure that we're all on the same page about where we have possibilities and where we have problems."

Stewart has never run a system as big as the state's Public Education Department. But some superintendents say they have been happy with the team of deputy superintendents — all with long tenures in New Mexico — Stewart inherited.

Now, all he needs to do is learn the state.

"It would be nice to see (Stewart) get out to those far-reaching districts so he can hear from us as well. We have a unique circumstances as far as resources or lack thereof," said Santa Rosa Consolidated Schools Superintendent Martin Madrid, who was unable to hold any K-5 Plus classes at his district's lone elementary school.

"He'll do well, I think, as long as he relies heavily on the current deputy secretaries in place. I think they started off really well. As long as they continue to be supportive, I think superintendents around the state will be happy."

On his first day, Stewart introduced himself to Madrid and the rest of the state's superintendents during a conference call. Between now and the 30-day legislative session that starts in January, Stewart said he will work to get to know districts — and legislators — as key initiatives move along.

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Stewart, who officially starts Sept. 3, said he only applied for the job a few weeks ago and was attracted to the position because Lujan Grisham is prioritizing and investing in education. He said he has spent the time since reading up on the past legislative session and studying enrollment, demographics and proficiency data on the Public Education Department website.

Stewart said he's happy to learn on the fly, not unlike the young man who once turned down Wall Street for a classroom in East Palo Alto.

"The first year of teaching is always really, really hard, and I was no exception to that," Stewart said. "You have to go into teaching or anything really with this mindset that you have to learn, you have to try things, you have to adjust.

"And you always have to be developing and inquiring about how to improve in order to better serve the students."