Barbara H. Krysiak
Excellence in Public Service
Associate Professor of Education
College of Liberal Arts
Photographed on September 21, 2004, at Morrill Hall, University of New Hampshire.
She does not easily or silently suffer policies that are adverse to the welfare of children, says Todd DeMitchell, chairman of UNH’s Department of Education, of Barbara Krysiak. “Her position is unequivocal. If a society will not protect its most vulnerable, that calls into question the values of that society.”
Krysiak, whose public service career spans the field of education—from sixth grade teacher, to superintendent of schools, to associate professor of educational administration and supervision—would no doubt agree with DeMitchell’s representation. She says she’s been called a left-wing zealot, but prefers to refer to herself as “one of only two real liberals left from the state of Massachusetts .”
Krysiak grew up the oldest child of Polish mill workers in the immigrant city of Lowell , Mass. The first in her family to go to college, she credits her parents for “setting high expectations,” her grandmother for giving her “a love of language and story telling,” and a high school English teacher named Alice Stickney for giving her a very special gift.
“She gave me a book to read, a white leather copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy,” Krysiak recalls, illustrating how one teacher can make a difference. “I was so impressed because it was her personal copy. I remember, she said, ‘This is college work. You can do it.’”
Krysiak never forgot that teacher, or the others who encouraged a spirited, blue collar girl. It would set the foundation for her career—one in which she has fought tirelessly for educational equity for all children.
As a young teacher in the decade that spanned 1958 to 1968, Krysiak says her goal—at a time when 40 percent of her students quit school at the age of 16—was getting them to graduate. She spent a lot of time during and after school trying to keep her students engaged, and got a reputation for “being a very good teacher.”
At age 30, she was lured to a job that would be a turning point in her life. Krysiak took a position as English teacher in the Upward Bound program at Connecticut College . Her students in the summer residential program were predominantly black girls.
“I grew up in an ethnically, but not racially, diverse community,” she says. “In Connecticut , I met black people who were wealthier than I. But I also learned that the color of one’s skin made a huge difference. Many of these girl’s teachers—90 percent of them white—had low expectations of them. But they were chosen for the program because someone in their school felt they had potential. When given a chance to perform, these kids rose off the charts.”
Krysiak quit her job at Kennedy Junior High School in Waltham, Mass., to become full-time director of the Connecticut program, where, among other things, she would mentor and recruit girls from their senior year into college. When she returned to the public schools, as junior high English coordinator for Waltham , Krysiak introduced black literature and culture into the curriculum. She nearly got fired. There were many who questioned her passion for change.
“When you become a teacher, the most important thing you have is your integrity,” she says. “I tell my students, ‘you have to decide not only what you’re willing to die for, but what hill you’re willing to die on.’ ”
Krysiak’s illustrious career includes working on curriculum reform as acting associate commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Education to fighting for equitable school funding in New Hampshire . As a professor in UNH’s educational administration program, she shares her wealth of knowledge with future school leaders. DeMitchell says he knows of no other faculty member more deeply engaged with the educational community, whether it be leading book discussions with teachers or working with school superintendents to draft strategic plans for their school districts.
“It really comes down to this: ‘The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,’ ” Krysiak says, quoting an anonymous author. “Student achievement is number one. No child should ever be made the victim of the circumstance of birth or the place he or she lives.”