As a young man, Dr. Marvin A. Pryor envisioned his life as a professional jazz musician touring the nation opening for acts such as Ray Charles, Cameo and The Ohio Players.
Pryor accomplished that dream and since then has been helping students and educators realize theirs.
He is the author of three nonfiction books, is the trombonist in a nationally touring jazz band The PR Experience, and has 30 years of educational experience.
In 2020 he moved to Madison to be one of the district’s chiefs of secondary education. But just seven months into his position, Madison Metropolitan School District announced that he will be promoted to the chief academic officer.
In coordination with superintendent Dr. Carlton Jenkins, Pryor will help set the framework for what instruction is going to look like in the 52 MMSD schools that serve some 27,000 students. He will focus on alignment between departments in how they support schools, as well as ensuring student success through graduation, college and community readiness, Pryor said.
Pryor will bring his experience as an elementary school teacher, a high school band director, a fine arts coordinator for the Atlantic Public School District and a high school principal — where he grew the graduation rate of The George Washington Carver Comprehensive High School in Atlanta from 27% to 100% in just four years.
He said he wants to change the mindsets surrounding student success; it is not about saving students, he said, it is about ensuring opportunity and access.
“When we talk about students’ ability to learn — especially Black and Brown students — I know that it can be done with the right supports and the mindset of the people who stand before them and lead them,” Pryor told Madison365. “If we raise expectations, they’ll meet those expectations.”
Pryor said when he used to walk the halls in elementary or high school, he would stop kids and ask them what their dreams were. He wanted them to rattle it off because “you never, never walk around without a dream.”
“You should always have a dream that you hold true and dear to your heart and something that you are always going after,” he said. “Because once we take the dream away, you are just existing; and we’ve got to extend beyond that. We don’t want to just exist. We want to have dreams and we want to have our wildest dreams.”
Each time Pryor started a new role in education, he thought “This is it. This is where I’ll retire.”
Until he was recruited for another role.
When he was asked to take on the high school principal position in one of Georgia’s most underperforming high schools, George Washington Carver Comprehensive High School, he had no principal or assistant principal experience, he said.
But he was good at building positive relationships including implementing an advisor-student partnership, where each student had a personalized advisor that met with them once a day in a group of between 12-15 students.
“I was very good at really changing mindsets,” he said. “Getting kids and people and individuals to believe that you have more in your tank than you think you have. You’re capable of way more than you would ever imagine. And so I took that personally, like that was my mission, and that was my responsibility to bring that out of individuals, not only the students, but the adults.”
As principal, he increased graduation rates, and college performance rates. The school went on to be named one of America’s Best High Schools from US Newsweek Magazine. It became one of the top high schools in Atlanta for academic performance, Pryor said.
And it was done by changing mindsets.
“That was a result of systemic practices and changing the mindsets of faculty and staff and the community,” he said. “It was about having dreams and high aspirations for children from our perspective. But most importantly really working with students through advisories to have them really reimagine their lives — even with the diverse challenges that they came to us with and the economic challenges that they come from, no matter the community that they came from — to have them imagine what life could possibly look like for them … and they bought into that dream.”
‘Always advance your skill’
Pryor believes in the success of advising and the impact it can have on students, he told Madison365.
In his first published book, dedicated to his grandmother and titled “Everything Your Eyes See Your Mouth Say You Want It: Everyone Has a Story,” he talks about his high school band director who first put the trombone in his hands.
“He helped me to realize my God-given talents and really gave me the vehicle of how to utilize the talent to pay my way to where I am right now. Everything that I’ve accomplished and everything that I’ve ventured is, in part, because of that trombone that he put me in my hand — it paid for my college and opened many doors.”
In addition to forming The PR Experience, a jazz duo composed of trumpeter Nelson Render and trombonist Pryor, he was also a band director at two high schools in Atlanta from 1987 to 2001, according to his LinkedIn profile.
“I am here now because of my work as a high school band director because people had a chance to see my passion, my level of commitment, the impact that I was making, the communication that I had with the community at large and they saw the difference that I was making in children,” Pryor said.
Pryor will continue to play music with his band and as a solo artist.
He said he is excited to work at MMSD, and with Jenkins to fulfill the vision of making Madison’s schools a level playing field, a place of anti-racism, a place that believes in Black excellence, and a place that believes all children can learn at high levels.
“I just think that we’re on the cusp of doing something that is going to be so monumental. I really think that the nation is going to take note of the courageousness and the boldness of the leadership and the boldness of this board,” Pryor said.