The state education department is reporting this morning that state Superintendent Brian Whiston has died of cancer at 56 years old.

Whiston, who led the state education department for three years, is best known as the architect of the partnership agreements that last year prevented the closure of 38 struggling Michigan schools.

Those schools — including 25 in the city of Detroit — had been targeted for closure by a state law requiring the shuttering of any school that had been in the bottom five percent of state rankings for three years in a row. Parents were notified by a state agency called the School Reform Office that their children’s schools were in danger of closing. 

Whiston at the time had no control over the School Reform Office, which reported to Gov. Rick Snyder, but it was Whiston who gave Snyder an alternative to closing schools.

Instead of forcing thousands of children across the state to scramble for new schools that likely would not have been much different from the schools they were leaving, Whiston proposed that the schools enter into “partnership agreements” designed to keep them open.

With Snyder’s blessing, the schools signed agreements that required them to work with partners such as local universities and community groups to improve instruction. If the schools are unable to meet improvement targets over three years, they could be subject to consequences like closure.

Snyder then returned the School Reform Office to the control of the state Education Department.

Since then, dozens of other schools have also signed partnership agreements, and Whiston has been an advocate for school improvement, rather than punishing schools for poor performance.

Among people who have sent condolences since news of Whiston’s death emerged this morning is U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Snyder also issued a statement saying:

“It is with a heavy heart that I learned the news of the passing of State Superintendent Brian Whiston. Brian’s dedication and work on behalf of all Michigan students and teachers was exemplary. He was an outstanding partner who understood that, just as teachers work every day to challenge their students to do better, we all need to challenge ourselves to do better for students. The partnerships to help struggling districts, his work to help implement the Marshall Plan for Talent, his Top 10 in 10 program, and many other initiatives he undertook during his career will be part of Brian’s longstanding efforts to make Michigan a national leader in education. I will miss working with him greatly.”

For more about Whiston, who previously served as superintendent of Dearborn Public Schools, here’s the press release the Education Department issued this morning: