For Hanna Skandera, "change" is more than a campaign slogan.

The Santa Rosa native and Sonoma State University grad is the New Mexico secretary of education-designate, a position she's used to shake up the state's education system and draw a firestorm of both criticism and support.

Skandera, 39, previously served as California's assistant secretary of education under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and in a similar post in Florida -- all without having been a K-12 classroom teacher or principal. She traces her commitment to education to her experiences in Sonoma County.

"My biggest inspiration came from the students and athletes I mentored and coached," said Skandera, who coached track and cross country at SSU and St. Rose School in Santa Rosa. "It was giving them an awareness of, 'I can create change' and 'I matter.' "

In college, Skandera worked as the Sonoma County program coordinator for a Catholic Charities' peer education program called Free-to-Be, recruiting and training hundreds of California students to participate.

Skandera developed and implemented much of the program's curriculum in schools, said Sue Bisbee, the founder of Free-to-Be. "It's not easy to get up and talk to teens about sensitive topics, but she was outstanding," Bisbee said.

Skandera has been the subject of controversy in New Mexico since December 2010, when she was nominated as secretary of education by Republican Gov. Susana Martinez. The Democrat-dominated New Mexico Legislature twice delayed confirmation hearings.

This month, the Legislature held confirmation hearings, but no vote was taken on her appointment. She has continued in the job the entire time.

"When I came to New Mexico, the expectation and question Martinez asked me was not 'have you been a K-12 teacher?' " Skandera said. "It was, 'Can you create change?' I think my track record proves that I can."

Skandera attended Santa Rosa Junior College before transferring to SSU, where she became a top competitor on the track and cross country teams.

"She was just an incredible person and a real role model to me," said Vanessa Fuchs, a former SSU teammate of Skandera's. "She motivated me to be a better person."

Lance Plaza, an SSU scholarship coordinator during the early '90s, remembers Skandera as an exemplary student who won scholarships several years in a row.

"There were several students that came through my office who I thought would do something special, and she was one of them," Plaza said. "I'm really glad she's done so well."

After graduating from SSU in 1996, Skandera went on to pursue a master's in public policy from Pepperdine University in Malibu. She briefly served as an adjunct professor in education policy at the school before becoming a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, a Stanford University think tank.

Her education research garnered attention, and in 2004 she went to work in Sacramento. She exchanged California for Florida in 2005, working as the deputy commissioner of education for then-Gov. Jeb Bush.

Skandera implemented a grading system similar to one used in Florida to New Mexico in 2011 that grades schools on an A-F scale. Critics said the system would "stigmatize" struggling schools, but Skandera says it raises a standard of excellence and provides clarity.

Ellen Bernstein, president of the Albuquerque Teacher's Federation, called the system "demoralizing" and said her teachers believe that Skandera makes their jobs harder.

Skandera said the system is causing parents to take ownership of their children's education, empowering them to champion what's working and point out what's not.

"I had a father who told me that he'd never known how his daughter's school was doing until the (system)," said Skandera. "English was not his first language, but he understood the system."

Changing New Mexico's state education system is no simple project. The state is ranked 49th in the nation for education, and 98 percent of the state's schools were listed as failing under No Child Left Behind.

"You have to know where you are to get where you're going," Skandera said. "There are no excuses -- every child can learn and every child can succeed."

Under Skandera, graduation rates in the state have increased to 70.3 percent in 2012, up from 63 percent in 2011.

"She's always been invested in the kids, their education and the possibilities for their futures," said her mother, Carol Skandera, who also noted her daughter comes from a family of classroom teachers.

Possibilities are a big part of Skandera's mission. "We should and can be a national leader," she said. "We're taking ownership of our education and the possibilities our kids have."

At her recent confirmation hearings this month, critics questioned her lack of classroom experience and supporters praised her work in overhauling the state's school systems.

"The person who leads the education department needs to be a person who understands both practice and policy," said Bernstein, the union representative.

Supporters pointed out that President Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, also lacks K-12 experience.

"(Skandera) is a highly skilled educator in education reform," said Terri Cole, the president and CEO of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. "She's exactly the kind of talent New Mexico needs right now to deal with the problems facing our state."

While her policies remain controversial, Skandera said she plans to continue a path of "progess and excellence" in the state's education system.

"I really have to give a huge thank-you to the community of Sonoma County and the scholarships that made my education possible," said Skandera. "So many people supported me growing up in Santa Rosa, and I wouldn't be where I am today without them."

Staff Writer Melody Karpinski can be reached at 521-5205 or Melody.Karpinski@pressdemocrat.com