Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Ryan Akil Stewart wasn’t on a job hunt.
“This was not on my radar. I was not on the job market. I was very happy with the work I was doing,” Stewart told the Journal.
But he said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham was “very convincing.”
She must have been, given that the 38-year-old accepted her offer to be New Mexico’s secretary-designate of education, leaving his executive role with education nonprofit Partners in School Innovation, which he held since December 2017.
He takes the helm from Karen Trujillo, a longtime educator who was appointed just six months before being fired for not meeting Lujan Grisham’s expectations.
Stewart is the first African American to be appointed secretary of the state Public Education Department.
He says he was sold on a vision Lujan Grisham described.
“She really talked a lot about the priority she and her administration were placing on education. She talked a lot about the collaboration that was happening in all corners,” he said.
And he was interested in the idea that he could help New Mexico’s education system, which, by most measures, is underperforming. Days after Trujillo was fired, the state released results showing that around 80% of students weren’t proficient in math and 67% weren’t proficient in reading.
Stewart had never met the governor until his job interview. He said his first impressions of her was that she is passionate about her work.
A spokesman for the Governor’s Office said that interview was “several weeks ago.”
Stewart had first spoken to her by phone after her office reached out about the position.
The governor has suggested that national experts in education had brought Stewart’s credentials to her attention.
Stewart wasn’t a candidate the first time Lujan Grisham hired a public education secretary. But the governor has said that she’s confident his skills will help turn around the school system.
Stewart’s appointment is subject to confirmation by the state Senate, although he can begin work right away. A confirmation hearing is expected during the 2020 legislative session, which begins in January.
A green chile fan
Stewart was an algebra and science teacher from 2003 to 2006, according to his résumé. He has held various jobs in education since, including as a special assistant to the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia and executive director of the district’s Office of School Improvement and Innovation before his stint at Partners in School Innovation.
Neither the School District of Philadelphia nor Partners in School Innovation could be reached by the Journal for this article.
Stewart’s wife, Gretchen, is also in education, serving as principal of Vare-Washington Elementary School, a public school in the Philadelphia district.
Eventually, the two will move to New Mexico, likely Santa Fe, with their 9-year-old son.
Stewart said there isn’t a concrete plan on their move but that he will be in New Mexico full time after Labor Day and will focus on the housing search then.
His son, Miles, is in fourth grade at a private Quaker school. Stewart says he is planning to send Miles to public school when they come to New Mexico.
The move will be a shift for Stewart.
Before taking the job, he visited New Mexico a few times on vacation, but never for business.
He is looking forward to exploring New Mexico’s hiking trails and mountain slopes.
And he’s already tucked into touring the state’s cuisine, saying he is leaning toward green chile as a favorite.
‘Excited to get started’
Although he hadn’t been to New Mexico many times before this, he says he’s done his homework.
He researched “every article I could find” on the most recent legislative session and education shifts under Lujan Grisham. He also says he studied the landmark court decision that found New Mexico is violating some students’ rights by failing to provide a sufficient education and school performance data.
“I actually spent just a ton of time so I could understand the state, basically creating a map for myself and overlaying the rates of poverty in each of our districts and the rates of proficiency in the districts and the spending per district,” he said.
He said he was raised in a middle-class family, “never rich, but I always felt like we had what we needed.”
He knows some will be skeptical because he isn’t a New Mexico native, but he is hoping time will change their minds.
“Anytime there is an outsider coming in and you don’t really know much about them, people will doubt you until you prove that you are able to lead and represent them effectively,” he said.
“I think once people get a chance to see the direction that we’re going to head together, to really get a chance to get to know me and my leadership style, the doubts will fade,” he said.
He describes that leadership style as collaborative and driven by data and research.
Stewart is not the first out-of-state resident to be selected as PED secretary. Lujan Grisham’s predecessor, former Gov. Susana Martinez, appointed Florida education administrator Hanna Skandera to run the state’s schools. Skandera held the job from 2011 until 2017 but clashed frequently with teachers unions and Democratic lawmakers who disagreed with many of the administration’s reform measures and questioned whether Skandera was qualified for the job, given her lack of classroom teaching experience.
Asked to describe himself in three words, Stewart settled on “reflective,” because he aims to be contemplative, and “kind” and “motivated.”
And you could say a fourth adjective is “excited.”
“I’m incredibly excited to get started,” he said.
Journal staff writer Dan McKay contributed to this report.