New Kentucky education commissioner Stephen Pruitt 'can't wait' - WDRB 41 Louisville News

New Kentucky education commissioner Stephen Pruitt 'can't wait' to get started

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Stephen Pruitt (submitted photo) Stephen Pruitt (submitted photo)

FRANKFORT, Ky. (WDRB) -- He's a third-generation educator who says he was initially in denial about what he says is his "true calling," but the passion Stephen Pruitt had for teaching children was just too strong to overcome.

On Wednesday, Pruitt, 47, will be named Kentucky's sixth education commissioner and will oversee the education of 675,000 students in Kentucky's public schools. He is expected to start on Oct. 16.

"My grandmother was a teacher, my mother was a teacher and when I first went to college, I was sort of in denial," Pruitt told WDRB News in an interview. "I thought I would become an ophthalmologist, but the pull to teaching was just too strong. It’s all I could ever see myself really doing. It’s the greatest joy in the world."

The Kentucky Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to appoint Pruitt as the next commissioner of education They had previously identified Pruitt as their only finalist.

Kentucky Board of Education Chair Roger Marcum will now negotiate the terms of employment with Pruitt and the board plans to ratify the Pruitt's contract at its Oct. 6 meeting.

"I am extremely excited about this opportunity – Kentucky has shown over the years a commitment to improving education for their children," Pruitt said. "For me, it’s the ultimate opportunity. The chance to serve Kentucky's students, teachers and parents is a dream job."

Board members praised Pruitt for his strong communication and collaborative skills.

"From day one, I was impressed with the fact that he wanted to be in Kentucky and be a part of this work," Marcum said before the board voted. "he sees this as the capstone of his career. He wants to be here a long time."

Pruitt is currently senior vice president at Achieve, Inc., an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit education reform organization, where he has served since 2010. He has previously been a chief of staff, associate state superintendent, director of academic standards, and science and mathematics program manager with the Georgia Department of Education.

"Up until this job, I had never before applied for another commissioner job," Pruitt said. "I never really had a desire to apply anywhere, but when I saw that Kentucky was looking for a new leader, it was a perfect fit for me."

During his time at Achieve, Pruitt led 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.

Pruitt said the standards are “certainly a foundation for good science instruction," but it's just as important to give children "authentic experiences in science."

"Kids are natural-born scientists, we need to embrace that," he said. 

In terms of the Common Core Standards, "Kentucky will follow the process (previous commissioner) Terry Holliday started.

"The standards have been in Kentucky for awhile now and the department has been going through a review process of the standards," he said. "We will listen to feedback that we have received."

According to the application letter and resumes submitted by Pruitt to the Florida firm charged with helping the state board with its search process, he talked about his 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."

Pruitt tells WDRB News that he will "hit the ground running" on Oct. 16. 

"I will be spending a lot of time listening," he said. "I plan to set up some advisory boards very soon after arriving. I want to talk to students, parents, teachers, principals and superintendents – and I want to meet with key legislators and gubernatorial candidates. I want to hear what has been going on and where they feel they are and what I can do to support them."

"I am a big believer that you just don’t come in and make arbitrary changes, you need to learn the current situation and then use the best available research and advice and then you make a decision," Pruitt said. 

He adds that while he has a lot of things to learn about Kentucky's education system, "things like assessment and teacher evaluations and accountability are things I am going to have to get to know very quickly."

Pruitt said he will be visiting schools and communities across the commonwealth.

"Part of the role of commissioner – if they stay in Frankfort all the time, they can’t hear and see the needs of the districts," he said. "There is a balance I will have to strike between getting to know the agency and getting to know the districts. I can't wait to get started."

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

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