The Neag School of Education recognized graduates from the Class of 2012 during two ceremonies the weekend of May 5-6. The Neag School undergraduate and sixth-year commencement took place at the Jorgensen Auditorium on Sunday, May 6. Commencement for Neag School graduate students took place on Saturday, May 5, at Gampel Pavilion.
The Graduate School commencement speaker on Saturday was Robert Gallo, who discovered that the HIV antivirus is the cause of AIDS. Gallo is founding director of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He previously spent 30 years at the National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute, where he was head of its Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology.
The undergraduate and sixth-year ceremony on Sunday featured commencement guest speaker Stefan Pryor, Connecticut’s Commissioner of Education. Before becoming the youngest leader to fill the state’s most influential educational leadership role, he had already made a name for himself as founder of one of Connecticut’s most successful charter schools, the Amistad Academy in New Haven. Pryor is also former deputy mayor for Economic Development in the City of Newark, N.J., and a past president of the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, the post-September 11th rebuilding agency.
Dean Thomas DeFranco provided insight into Commissioner Pryor’s responsibilities by giving an unofficial job description that included “overseeing around 567,000 K-12 students, approximately 48,000 teachers across 1179 K-12 schools, 18 charter schools and 17 technical high schools in 166 districts. Qualified candidates must have experience with low-performing schools and districts. In addition, this educational leader must be intelligent, dynamic, courageous and politically savvy and will need to work cooperatively with a diverse group of stakeholders.”
“Finally,” the dean continued, “the applicant must dress appropriately. (He must wear) a cape, blue tights with a big ‘S’ across the chest.”
Dean DeFranco acknowledged that while that was not exactly how the official posting for the commissioner’s position read, a person with all those qualifications was selected and “now we are honored to have him as Neag School’s commencement speaker.”
DeFranco also talked about the challenges Commissioner Pryor will face. “On a national level, the most serious challenge involves student achievement and the achievement gap.”
“Over the years, there has been little progress in narrowing the achievement gap … and this is of particular concern in Connecticut. I believe that closing the achievement gap is both an economic and moral imperative for the future of our state, as well as the children of Connecticut,” he said. “Closing the gap will take strong leadership and a commitment to working collaboratively with stakeholders across the state.”
Dean DeFranco offered the following question, “Is Stefan up for the challenge?” He went on to describe him as a collaborator, skilled consensus builder, strong communicator, highly intelligent, outcome-oriented and respectful of people and their opinions – all the qualities needed to close the achievement gap and improve the academic performance and well-being of Connecticut’s children.
After this introduction, Commissioner Pryor welcomed the audience and enthusiastically started his commencement message.
“Today, Connecticut is in the midst of a conversation about how best to revitalize its schools,” he began. “This is a debate about how best to support and empower you – the rising leaders of our classrooms and school buildings. Our educators are our society’s greatest assets as we seek to better the world we live in.
“So in addition to saying congratulations, let me say thank you – for choosing a calling so noble, and so essential, to the future of our state and our country,” he continued. “As the child of two public school teachers, I stand here in deep gratitude for your commitment to serving the next generation of schoolchildren.”
He offered words of support and advice for the graduates as they chart their careers. He suggested they take note of the gravity of the situation before them; that they embrace it as a mandate for change. He also compared his experiences with witnessing disasters like 9/11 to the disastrous educational conditions in Connecticut — and how these conditions can be used to mobilize great people to achieve great things.
“Our state is home to the nation’s largest achievement gap between rich and poor, and between white students and students of color,” he continued, urging graduates to consider dedicating themselves to serving students in greatest need – helping them beat the odds – as a way to maximize both their impact and own sense of professional satisfaction.
He encouraged the next generation of educator-leaders to redefine education reform to what it should be: “a good-faith search for strategies that put educators in the best possible position to transform students’ lives.”
Commissioner Pryor ended with the promise that “if we work together, we can make Connecticut a national model for closing the achievement gap and creative academic excellence for all.”
Prior to Commissioner Pryor’s speech, but before the more than 280 graduates received their diplomas, the platform party was introduced and the Neag Alumni Society President offered a welcome. In addition, four faculty members were recognized with university-wide honors: University Teaching Fellows, Dr. Doug Kaufman and Dr. Catherine Little; University Teaching Scholar, Dr. Renee Roselle; and the Letitia Neag Morgan Endowed Chair for Educational Psychology, Dr. Sally Reis.
After both commencement ceremonies, graduates, family and friends were treated to receptions at the Gentry Building, offering a time for celebration and reflection.