Two finalists for Kentucky Education Commissioner are strong lea - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Two finalists for Kentucky Education Commissioner are strong leaders, excellent communicators

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Stephen Pruitt and Chris Koch, the two remaining finalists in Kentucky Education Commissioner search. Stephen Pruitt and Chris Koch, the two remaining finalists in Kentucky Education Commissioner search.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The two finalists who remain in Kentucky's search for a new education commissioner are both former teachers who are "strong leaders" and "excellent communicators."

WDRB News has been able to independently confirm that Stephen Pruitt, a former Georgia Department of Education official who is now the senior vice president at Achieve, Inc., an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit education reform organization in Washington, D.C., and Christopher Koch, the former State Superintendent of Education in Illinois who is now the interim president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP) in Washington, D.C., are the two finalists who remain in the search.

[DOCUMENTS | KENTUCKY EDUCATION COMMISSIONER FINALIST SEARCH]

The other three candidates -- Buddy Berry, superintendent of Eminence Independent Schools in Eminence, Ky., Lloyd Martin, chief executive officer for Universal School Solutions, LLC, in Jacksonville, Fla., and Kathleen Airhart, deputy commissioner and chief operating officer for the Tennessee Department of Education, have indicated they are no longer being considered.

Without naming who the two finalists are, Kentucky Board of Education chairman Roger Marcum told WDRB News on Thursday he believes "both remaining finalists are super strong candidates."

"I think either one would be an excellent commissioner," he said, noting that the board is now having two in-depth background checks done on both finalists. "At this point, we just want to know everything there is to know about them."

According to the application letters and resumes submitted by Pruitt and Koch to the Florida firm charged with helping the state board with its search process, both men talk about their extensive experience in working with students, teachers, parents and other stakeholders. The documents were obtained by WDRB News from the Kentucky Department of Education through an open records request.

"I spent twelve years as a high school science teacher," Pruitt wrote in his letter. "I believe the position of Commissioner of Education needs to have come from a firm foundation of having been a teacher. I am most proud of my time in the classroom."

Pruitt says he is a "strong believer in the power and necessity of communication."

"A quality communicator is able to create a clear message, but also able to listen to stakeholders affected by the issue at hand," he wrote. "I have had the opportunity in my roles in state government and in the private sector to lead large, successful programs or initiatives. They were successful in large part because I know the value of communicating a plan, but also listening to district leaders and teachers."

Koch's application letter states that his eight years as Illinois State Superintendent of Education gave him a "particularly full spectrum of experiences that would easily transfer to Kentucky."

He mentions his "proven record of implementing an innovative vision for education" and "expertise in attracting, mentoring and retaining diverse personnel." He says he also has extensive experience in financial management and fundraising.

During his time as state superintendent, Koch said he is most proud of being able to successfully advocate for more education funding and implementing "student performance assessments that measure the application of knowledge and higher order thinking skills."

Former Kentucky Education Commissioner Gene Wilhoit is listed as one of five references on Koch's resume, but Wilhoit also told WDRB News on Thursday he is familiar with Pruitt as well.

"I've known Chris for a number of years, I have observed him in multiple settings" Wilhoit said. "His strengths include a remarkable ability to relate to different groups of people. He is a consensus builder. He was able to navigate extremely difficult and complex education issues in Illinois, including those in Chicago, which is the third largest district in the country."

Koch mentions his department's interventions in both the East St. Louis and North Chicago school districts as among his proudest accomplishments, saying those actions "resulted in improved and continuing to improve student academic performance."

Wilhoit describes Pruitt as an "energetic and innovative educator" who was "supported and well-received" during his time in Georgia and was given the "difficult responsibility -- in the shadow of new math and English standards -- to develop some national science standards."

"I think either Chris or Stephen would be a great commissioner," Wilhoit said.

Pruitt began his career as a high school chemistry teacher in Georgia, where he taught for 12 years. In 2003, he joined the Georgia Department of Education as the program manager for science, later became the director of academic standards, an associate superintendent of assessment and accountability and then chief of staff to then State School Superintendent Kathy Cox.

Pruitt joined Achieve in 2010 and has led the the development of the Next Generation Science Standards -- the new set of academic guidelines that teachers across Kentucky put into practice last year.

Much like the Common Core Standards in math and language arts – which have been adopted by 43 states -- the science standards describe what students need to know before they complete each grade level. To date, 14 other states, as well as Washington, D.C., have implemented the science standards.

"It's a very complex system, and Stephen did it very well -- and he did that fairly independently," Wilhoit said. "He has shown an ability to develop a high quality product and work with people from all different backgrounds. He is an excellent communicator." 

Pruitt, who is married with two children, earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from North Georgia College and State University, a master’s in science education from the University of West Georgia and a doctorate of philosophy in chemistry education from Auburn University.

Koch's began his career in special education. He taught in four states in various settings including an Outward Bound program, a college preparatory school, a youth detention center and a psychiatric hospital. He also worked with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Vocational and Adult Education where he administered programs in correctional education and School-to-Work transition.

Since May, he has been the interim president of the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation -- the only recognized accreditor specialized in accreditation of U.S. educator-preparation programs.

He was tapped to be interim after James Cibulka, a former dean of the college of education at the University of Kentucky, who was unexpectedly removed from the job following what Education Week called "a rocky few months" where CAEP was criticized for a disorganized piloting of the new accreditation standards.

Koch earned his bachelor's degree from Southern Illinois University and his master’s and doctoral degrees in educational policy and leadership from George Washington University.

Terry Holliday was named education commissioner in 2009 and has been in charge of overseeing the education of 675,000 students in Kentucky's public schools. His last official day on the job was Aug. 31.

The state board has appointed Associate Commissioner and General Counsel Kevin Brown to serve as interim commissioner until a new commissioner is appointed.

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Reporter Antoinette Konz covers K-12 education for WDRB News. She can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

Copyright 2015 WDRB News. All rights reserved.

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