FILE -- In this July 2, 2009 file photo is Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro in Jefferson City, Mo. Nicastro said Monday, Sept. 15, 2014 that she plans to resign later this year, ending a tenure during which she repeatedly came under criticism as the state adopted new school accreditation standards and dealt with struggling districts. (AP Photo/Columbia Missourian, Sarah Flagg, File)
JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri — Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro announced Monday that she will resign at the end of this year, concluding a five-year tenure marked by repeated criticism as the state adopted new school accreditation standards and dealt with struggling districts.
In a written statement announcing Nicastro's departure, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education noted her tenure has included the implementation of new standards for student achievement, school district classification, teacher preparation and early childhood education. The department also launched an initiative to push Missouri from the middle of the pack into a top 10 ranking for student achievement by 2020.
"This is exactly the right time both personally and professionally for a change in leadership," Nicasatro, who became head of the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in 2009, said in a written statement.
In a later interview, Nicastro, 63, acknowledged the frequent criticism but said it played no role in her departure. She compared her leadership to that of a large ship breaking through a frozen sea to free stranded whales.
"That's what I do. I break through that ice and get things going, so that people can then start ... figuring out how is the best way to make things better," she said. "Breaking through that ice is hard."
Nicastro said no one besides her husband had asked her to retire.
Gov. Jay Nixon said public schools have made progress under Nicastro and praised her for an "unwavering commitment to providing every Missouri child with a high quality education."
Carter Ward, executive director of the Missouri School Boards' Association, described Nicastro as "a fearless advocate for improving student achievement" whose "leadership will be felt for many years to come."
But Nicastro also has faced criticism for her handling of high-profile issues, particularly during the past year.
A report last month from the state auditor's office raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest in the department's selection of Indianapolis-based Cities for Education Entrepreneurship Trust to study and recommend changes to the then-unaccredited Kansas City School District. Nicastro originally pursed the arrangement as a no-bid contract last year, and the audit questioned whether the criteria the department used to ultimately select the group for a $385,000 privately-funded contact was biased in its favor.
Last year, public teachers' groups criticized Nicastro after records showed she provided ballot-wording advice to a group pushing an initiative that would require teacher evaluations to be based largely on student performance data.
Some state lawmakers have been upset about the way the department has handled unaccredited districts in the St. Louis area, particularly its takeover of the Normandy district and its implementation of a law requiring unaccredited districts to pay for students wishing to transfer to other nearby schools.
Other lawmakers have opposed the agency's implementation of the Common Core educational standards. They passed a measure this year creating task forces of parents and educators to come up with new standards.
One of Nicastro's most outspoken critics has been state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who sponsored a non-binding resolution this year calling for Nicastro to resign or be fired. The Legislature did not pass the measure.
Chappelle-Nadal said Monday that she was "ecstatic" to hear Nicastro was leaving, adding: "She made the right decision."
"She was highly political in that role when she should not have been," said Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis.
Nicastro is the first woman and just the fifth person to serve as Missouri education commissioner since the role was created in 1947.
She began her career as a high school social studies teacher in Jefferson County's Northwest School District. She later served as an assistant superintendent in Ritenour and as superintendent of the Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood school districts, all of which are in St. Louis County.
State Board of Education members said they reluctantly accepted Nicastro's resignation and had no immediate plans for selecting a successor. Nicastro did an "outstanding job of leading a public agency in a difficult field at a difficult time," said state board member Michael Jones, of St. Louis.
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