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Policy and Advocacy

Meet the Alumni Leading Education in Their States

Five alumni are currently serving as state education commissioners, secretaries, and superintendents, pursuing positive outcomes for students at the school-system level.

September 24, 2020

The TFA Editorial Team

The TFA Editorial Team

School system leaders have the potential to make a broad impact across an entire network of schools. And an increasing number of Teach For America alumni have stepped up to lead in these roles, as state education commissioners, state education secretaries, and state superintendents—the highest school-system leadership positions in state government. With the appointment of new state education chiefs in New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Tennessee, five alumni are currently serving in these highly influential roles.

A total of 10 alumni have served in the state chief of education role to date, including former Tennessee State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman (Houston ‘92), former Louisiana State Superindentent of Education, John White (New Jersey '99), and Hanseul Kang (New Mexico ’04), former DC State Superintendent of Education.

The state education commissioner is accountable for the state’s entire K-12 public school system (district and charter). The commissioner helps to implement the governor’s vision for education in the state and is responsible for overseeing big projects like state testing, developing school report cards (the rating system for individual public schools within a state), and the creation and implementation of state-level plans for how schools will meet requirements for federal programs, such as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

State education commissioners have the power to make system-wide changes that impact millions of students across the state, changes that can result in more students gaining access to an equitable and excellent education. Learn more about the alums who currently hold this role and the paths they followed—from the classroom to leading their state's school systems.

Dr. Ryan Stewart (Bay Area ‘03), New Mexico Secretary of Public Education

Dr. Ryan Stewart
Photo credit: New Mexico Public Education Department

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham recently named Dr. Ryan Stewart as the new secretary of the New Mexico Public Education Department. Passionate about school improvement and innovation, Ryan has focused his career on helping teachers, administrators, and districts implement school-wide changes that lead to better outcomes for students.

Prior to accepting his new role, Ryan served as executive director of the national nonprofit Partners in School Innovation, expanding the organization’s partnerships with school districts in the mid-Atlantic region. The organization provides low-performing schools with intensive support to address systemic challenges, raise student achievement, and provide a more equitable education for all students.

Ryan’s school system experience also includes four years with the School District of Philadelphia, where he served as special assistant to the superintendent and executive director of the office of school improvement and innovation.

Prior to relocating to Philadelphia, Ryan supported teachers in California with continuous improvement as lead mentor at the New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit that helps new teachers build their effectiveness. Ryan advised middle school math and science teachers and worked with school administrators to plan professional development and measure outcomes.

Ryan began his education career teaching high school science and algebra as a 2003 Bay Area corps member, where he taught in the Ravenswood City School District for eight years.

Angélica Infante-Green (New York ’94), Rhode Island Commissioner of Education

Angélica Infante-Green

Angélica Infante-Green was named state education commissioner of Rhode Island by Governor Gina Raimondo in the Spring of 2019. Angélica spent the last four years leading state-level policies in New York and also ran for the state commissioner role in Massachusetts last year, becoming one of the finalists. 

Angélica most recently served as deputy commissioner of instruction at the New York State Education Department, where she championed programs to empower English language learners. She led New York City’s office of English language learners, developing a blueprint for how schools can meet ELL students’ needs while respecting their native language and culture. The state has since pioneered dual-language learning models that benefit all students, not just those who identify as ELL. She also spearheaded the state’s efforts to integrate schools by race and class.

Angélica’s own experience as a student and bilingual daughter of immigrants informs her perspective and passion for making changes to the systems that impact education. In an interview with Education Post, she said, “I’ve always had a passion for equity because of my own experience. I know firsthand what it’s like to be in a school where there isn’t much support and expectations are low.”

Angélica taught in New York City as a 1994 corps member, working in the city where she was raised.

Penny Schwinn (Baltimore ’04), Tennessee State Education Commissioner

Penny Schwinn

Penny Schwinn hit the ground running in her role as  Tennessee State Education Commissioner after her appointment in early 2019. She plans to spend her first few months traveling to every school district in Tennessee and preparing for state testing this spring.

Penny brings a wealth of experience to her role, having spent the past five years working in state education leadership positions in Texas and Delaware. Among her accomplishments, she developed local and state systems to hold schools accountable for strong student achievement. She also supported the development of open-source instructional materials and managed a team that provided professional development to over 20,000 educators per year.

Originally from Sacramento, California. Penny built her early career investing in education in her hometown. Three years after she served as a corps member in Baltimore, she founded Capitol Collegiate Academy in 2009, a K-8 charter school serving low-income students. She ran a successful campaign and served on the Sacramento Board of Education in 2012 and went on to lead as assistant superintendent at Sacramento Unified School District. 

Penny is the second TFA alum to serve as state education commissioner in Tennessee, following Kevin Huffman (Houston ’92), who served from 2011 to 2015.

Jeff Riley (Baltimore ’93), Massachusetts Commissioner of Elementary & Secondary Education

Jeff Riley

Since stepping into Massachusetts’ commissioner role in 2018, Jeff Riley is bringing together polarized groups within the Massachusetts education community in order to better serve students. He recently helped forge an unprecedented partnership between a school district and local charter school, testing out new ways that the two systems can work together to offer more equitable school options for families. “In a time of great polarization, it’s heartening to see folks come together and work on behalf of who matters most, I hope, to all of us, which is our students,” Jeff said recently.

Jeff’s other priorities include supporting and retaining teachers and increasing teacher diversity. Only 8 percent of Massachusetts teachers identify as people of color, compared to roughly 40 percent of the student population. 

Jeff has followed a leadership path in Massachusetts schools for nearly two decades, starting as principal of Tyngsborough Middle School in 2001, and Edwards Middle School in 2007. He then served as superintendent and receiver of Lawrence Public Schools. While there, he led major improvements, including extending the school day and giving schools more autonomy. He also developed a strong partnership with the teachers’ unions, all of which resulted in students making dramatic increases in test scores and graduation rates.

Jeff began his education career as a Baltimore corps member in 1993.

Mark Johnson (Charlotte ’06), North Carolina State Superintendent of Education

Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson was elected North Carolina state superintendent of education in 2016. Over the past three years, Mark has worked to improve the way the state handles testing by proposing fewer and shorter tests and advocating for other ways that students can show progress. In the wake of Hurricane Florence last fall, Mark, along with other state education officials, launched a bipartisan initiative, Florence Aid for Students and Teachers (FAST NC), which raised nearly $1 million to help schools recover from the storm damage.

Before leading as state superintendent, Mark served on the Forsyth County School Board in North Carolina for two years. He also worked as an attorney for North Carolina-based law firms.

Mark taught at West Charlotte High School for two years as a 2006 Charlotte corps member—an experience that set the course for his future career. In a local news story, he said, “I realized that I was ready—if given the opportunity—to devote my life to making sure in my lifetime that all students have the opportunity to succeed.” 

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