moving on

Heading to Bank Street, Polakow-Suransky is first to exit Fariña's ed department

A top Bloomberg-era deputy is leaving the Department of Education, marking the first visible leadership shift under Carmen Fariña and the potential start of a pre-K partnership.

Shael Polakow-Suransky will head Bank Street College of Education, a private teachers college in Manhattan that he attended, starting on July 1, the school announced this morning.

The Morningside Heights school is a logical destination for Polakow-Suransky, the department’s chief academic officer who emphasized instructional improvement and teacher preparation during his time at the Department of Education. It also frees up Fariña to begin filling the department’s top leadership slots with picks of her own.

Polakow-Suransky’s shift may also portend a tighter partnership between the city and the college. As Mayor Bill de Blasio continues to hash out plans for a universal pre-kindergarten program, both Fariña and Bank Street—which has traditionally placed special emphasis on training teachers and leaders in early childhood education—said that they could work together in the future.

Late last year, Polakow-Suransky’s actions signaled that he might be angling for a position in a de Blasio Department of Education. In just one week in October, he struck a deal with the teachers union and parents, agreeing to pay teachers overtime to work with parents of struggling students; penned a column announcing that some schools could opt out of the city’s controversial school grading system; and spoke to upset parents about the new state tests at a forum in District 15, de Blasio and Fariña’s old district.

But his ties to the Bloomberg administration, which Fariña has said she left in 2006 because of philosophical differences, were deep.

“Essentially he’s the leading proponent of all that’s left of the initiatives started by the Bloomberg administration: how to go about leadership development, how to train teachers and principals, how to assess them, and how to get them to work together in networks, not to mention the Common Core,” said Eric Nadelstern, a former deputy schools chancellor who designed the school support networks and worked closely with Polakow-Suransky.

Since Fariña took over, Polakow-Suransky has stayed largely under the radar, appearing behind her in a cluster of department employees when she first addressed the staff but otherwise remaining out of the limelight. And quiet criticism of his leadership within the Department of Education had taken hold, sources there say. 

While another deputy, David Weiner, has joined Fariña on school visits, Polakow-Suransky has not. On Tuesday, Polakow-Suransky suggested that he had not pursued the possibility of potentially staying on under Fariña. “That was part of the conversation with Carmen and the mayor,” he said. “Ultimately this challenge is really what I want to do, but I am very grateful to their openness to talk through my options with me.”

Still, Fariña indicated in a statement that she had found common ground with Polakow-Suransky and would continue to work with him at Bank Street. “Teachers, principals, and I deeply value Shael’s insights and wisdom, and the Department’s longstanding relationship with Bank Street will continue to thrive under Shael’s leadership, particularly as we work to further our progressive agenda through greater access to early childhood education,” she said.

If the city did begin to implement universal pre-K, Nadelstern noted that the district would need many additional pre-K teachers—whom Polakow-Suransky and Bank Street would be well-positioned to negotiate with the city to train.

Polakow-Suransky joined the city school system as a teacher in 1994 after graduating from Brown University, where he studied education and urban studies. After teaching math and history at Crossroads Middle School in Manhattan, he moved to Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School, then left to found the Bronx International High School in 2001.

He joined the Department of Education’s central administration three years later, first in the Office of New Schools, which oversaw the opening of more than 200 new small schools during his time there. He then oversaw academic support services for the city’s networks of schools. And when the city’s accountability czar James Liebman left the department in 2009, Polakow-Suransky took his position.

He vaulted into public view in late 2010 when then-state education chief David Steiner made his promotion to “chief academic officer” a condition for approving Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s choice of media executive Cathie Black as chancellor.

Running another school district would have been another logical (and perhaps more high-profile) next step for Polakow-Suransky after leaving the department. But on Tuesday, he called the Bank Street presidency “a dream job” for him as a graduate of the school.

“It doesn’t preclude someday exploring another job in another city but … I have relationships here in New York that I value deeply and I want to feel like I can continue to contribute to this work in another role,” he said.

Major challenges do await him at Bank Street. John Borden, the school’s vice president for development and external relations, said that graduate schools of education generally “are facing declining enrollment for factors that are beyond our control,” such a decreasing number of teaching positions and potential students’ concern about taking on additional debt. Nadelstern said Polakow-Suransky may also face a faculty that is unwelcoming to his ideas for change.

Despite his résumé of educational leadership, Polakow-Suransky is also something of an unconventional pick for a college president, since he does not have a doctorate and his jobs at the Department of Education haven’t put him in visible fundraising roles. (Polakow-Suransky said he raised about $15 million a year while serving as chief academic officer, and Borden added that he believed Polakow-Suransky’s status as an alumnus would serve him well.)

Polakow-Suransky has previously questioned whether university-based education programs equip teachers with the skills most urgently needed in the city’s classrooms. In 2012, he said the city would ask the state for permission to train and certify teachers in areas such as science and special education, allowing them to bypass graduate-school programs.”We don’t want to have to depend on a university in order to train our teachers,” he told a state education commission at a meeting held at Bank Street. “Already, we’re having to retrain many teachers when they come into the system because they don’t have the skills that they need.”But Polakow-Suransky has spoken highly of his time at Bank Street, where Fariña was one of his teachers.”The key lesson I learned was that the principal’s class is the teachers, and the school leader has to have a curriculum that focuses on teachers’ development and growth. I don’t think any lesson I’ve learned over the years has been more important to me as a leader,” he said.

Polakow-Suransky’s presence throughout most of Bloomberg’s tenure—even as other top deputies left after Chancellor Joel Klein and Cathie Black’s departures—makes his departure a loss of high-level institutional memory and of a symbol of Bloomberg’s education philosophy.

“There are lot of people who are going to stay behind who know the work deeply,” Polakow-Suransky said.

Borden said discussions between the school and the Department of Education about pre-K would be beginning soon, even before Polakow-Suransky becomes president.

Patrick Wall contributed reporting.

Q and A

Here’s what Richard Carranza had to say in his first TV interview as New York City chancellor

Chancellor Richard Carranza was pressed on segregation, testing and metal detectors in schools.

New York City schools chief Richard Carranza has been cramming, if his first media interview since taking over the city’s schools on Monday is any indication.

Carranza spoke with NY1’s Lindsey Christ for about 30 minutes Wednesday, with an empty classroom as a backdrop. She pressed him on some of the most pressing issues facing the city, including school segregation, whether metal detectors belong in schools, and the city’s expensive Renewal program for struggling schools — where Carranza signaled that changes could be coming. He also addressed a gender discrimination lawsuit from his time as the head of San Francisco schools and called boycotts of standardized tests an “extreme reaction.” 

A few times, Carranza acknowledged he is still learning the ropes: Until he arrived in New York City, he had never worked in the country’s largest school system. He comes from Houston, where he was superintendent for less than two years.

Here’s what he had to say in Wednesday’s interview, which you can watch in its entirety here.

On segregation

Carranza is proving to be more frank than his boss — and his predecessor, retired Chancellor Carmen Fariña — on the issues of segregation and integration. Mayor Bill de Blasio has avoided those terms, preferring to speak more broadly about “diversity.” Carranza didn’t mind saying that “segregation and integration” have been issues in every district where he has worked. In Wednesday’s interview, Carranza was asked about his choice of words.

Back to Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court used the word segregation. So it is what it is. I think we get caught up sometimes in the terminology and miss the broader picture. The broader picture is that, if we have a public education system that truly belongs to the public, then every member of that public body — every single student, regardless of race, class, socioeconomic status, religious creed — should have access to all — all — opportunities in that system. And if [there is] segregation, then we need to work to end it.

On specialized high schools

New York City’s specialized high schools are some of the most prestigious in the system, but they are also starkly and persistently segregated. Only 10.4 percent of admissions offers for next year’s ninth-grade class went to black and Hispanic students, even though they make up about 70 percent of students citywide. Under de Blasio, the city has tried a number of initiatives to address the problem, but the admissions picture has not budged. Carranza suggested he wanted to see changes — but signaled that he had accepted his boss’s position that state law could be a barrier.

I’m starting to learn about what these issues are… State law notwithstanding, other protocol notwithstanding, how is that OK? From my perspective it’s not OK to have a public school in a city as diverse… and that you have only 10 African American students in a high school. So I’m looking at that, absolutely.

On a gender discrimination settlement from San Francisco

Shortly after Carranza was named chancellor, the New York Daily News uncovered a 2015 gender discrimination lawsuit involving Carranza when he was superintendent of San Francisco schools. The suit, which was settled for $75,000, was filed by a district employee who said she was denied a leadership role during Carranza’s tenure because of her gender and charged he retaliated against her for confronting him about flirting with a woman during a work conference. City Hall told Chalkbeat that officials were aware of the lawsuit but believed the allegations to be false — which Carranza echoed.

It just didn’t happen. It never happened. I’ve been an educator almost 30 years. I’ve worked with thousands of colleagues and there are many people who would talk about my character and who I am … I will stand on my record and I’ll stand on the relationships that I built. But it never happened.

On the city’s long-running investigation into yeshivas

In 2015, the education department said it would investigate whether private yeshivas offer adequate instruction in secular subjects such as math and science. The results of that politically charged investigation have yet to be revealed, and the city hasn’t offered a timeline for when it would be completed. Meanwhile, a new state law seems to hand state education leaders the power to evaluate the schools — rather than the local district. Carranza wouldn’t commit to a timeline to wrap up the city’s investigation, or even promise to finish it.

I haven’t been fully briefed on the investigation, or what this history of the investigation has been, but I believe that every student — regardless of where they go to school — needs to have a quality education. … My commitment is to be very transparent in terms of where the investigation is and what the next steps in the investigation are.

On metal detectors

Metal detectors are a polarizing issue in the debate over how to keep schools safe. Some advocates say the city would be better off investing in services like mental health supports, but others argue that metal detectors keep students and staff safe. Once metal detectors are installed in schools, they are almost never removed. But Carranza signaled he is open to having conversations about taking scanners out of schools.

The most effective, in my experience, security system is an environment where students feel a responsibility for their safety and feel comfortable in reporting when they hear or they see something… I think in some places there may be a very good reason why we have metal detectors. Again, I’m just getting here but that’s one of the topics I really want to explore. If we have metal detectors, what’s the reason for it, what’s the justification for it and if there’s no need for it, then how do we get rid of those?

On testing

New York has one of the largest opt-out movements in the country, with parents instructing their children to refuse to take standardized tests. Carranza said English and math tests should not crowd out other subjects such as art, but he also was clear that he does not encourage opting out.

I think it’s an extreme reaction to where I think we could have a much more nuanced approach. All right, let’s look at how much testing is happening in our schools, and then let’s decide what has to be there so that we know where our students are, and then let’s eliminate whatever we don’t need to have… There are a number of tests that serve a purpose. I think that’s a more nuanced conversation. What’s the purpose and why is that important?

On the Renewal program for struggling schools

De Blasio has spent more than $500 million to support struggling schools through Renewal, which floods dozens of struggling schools with extra support, social services such as health care, and a longer school day. Though the mayor promised “fast and intense” improvements, Renewal has produced mixed results. Carranza called the program “incredibly proactive,” but also suggested there might be changes coming.  

Where have the results been mixed and then how do we change strategies or how do we update our strategy? How do we become strategic in certain areas? That’s part of improving.

Compare and Contrast

Five first days of school: How Richard Carranza’s start as chancellor compares to his predecessors’

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Richard Carranza climbed the steps of Tweed Courthouse, the education department headquarters, on his first day as chancellor. Carranza previously led schools in San Francisco and Houston.

Richard Carranza’s first day as New York City schools chief started with a photo opportunity: a snowy walk-and-wave into Tweed Courthouse, the education department’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, shortly before 9 a.m.

Later today, he plans to have lunch at an iconic New York City restaurant, Katz’s Delicatessen, with Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray. (It must be said: The third day of Passover makes an unusual choice for a visit to a Jewish deli.)

What Carranza won’t be doing: visiting any schools. This week is spring break, giving Carranza at least five work days before he’s likely to face any on-the-ground challenges. That should give him time to get to know his colleagues at Tweed and start getting up to speed on the major issues he’ll have to tackle.

The schedule makes Carranza’s first day very different from those of the most recent chancellors he succeeds. Here’s a look at what each of them did on day one.

Carmen Fariña eased into the limelight.

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen Fariña.

On her first day in 2014, Fariña made a public appearance at one school, M.S. 223 in the Bronx, where she answered questions about where she planned to take the city’s schools. As a longtime veteran of the city’s schools appointed by a mayor who had vowed to shift the education department’s direction, would she seek to roll back Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s education agenda? She said she would work, at least at first, within “the framework that existed” — though four years later it’s clear that she changed the education department substantially.

Fariña also said her first day had been busy, with lots of coffee, lunch skipped, and meeting with current staffers to talk about ways to “duplicate” their policy successes — a mission at the heart of some of the programs she created. And she also foreshadowed her hesitance to be a public figure, saying “the word chancellor kind of gives me the shivers.” De Blasio is reportedly hoping Carranza will take a different approach.

Dennis Walcott made waffles.

PHOTO: Anna Phillips

He was still a few days shy of officially taking over the city’s school system when Dennis Walcott, then still a deputy mayor for Bloomberg, stopped by P.S. 10 in Brooklyn to make his trademark waffles in an appearance that many education insiders remember as his inaugural public appearance. The visit — not even his first since being appointed — fulfilled a promise made to a third-grader to prove that Walcott’s waffle recipe (sugar-free, in keeping with his fastidious health regimen) was the best in the world. A student’s question also presaged the chancellor’s first marathon several months later. The visit kicked off a gruelingand, he said, rewarding — pace of school visits that characterized Walcott’s tenure, which lasted until Bloomberg left office at the end of 2013.

Cathie Black made what might have been her longest public appearance.

PHOTO: Maura Walz
Cathie Black visited P.S. 262 in Brooklyn on her first official day as chancellor in 2011.

Cathie Black’s appointment came as a shock, but her first day on the job in January 2011 was thoroughly choreographed as she visited schools in each of the five boroughs. The city had time to prepare: It took several weeks between when Bloomberg picked her for state policy makers to give her the waiver she needed to run the city’s schools despite a total lack of education experience, and she didn’t take office for six weeks after that. At the time, Black told us she had visited roughly 20 schools before her official first day, when she stopped by a music-themed high school, a charter school that teaches Korean, and a school for students with severe disabilities. But her school-visit schedule quickly slowed as her public appearances became landmines for the city, and she resigned just three months after her official first day.

Oh, and Joel Klein was uncharacteristically quiet.

Joel Klein. (GothamSchools file photo)

Schools were also closed when Klein took office in August 2002, but he didn’t stick around the education department’s headquarters, then still located in Downtown Brooklyn. “I wanted to send a clear message that I’m going to be out and in the schools,” Klein said about why he met with a deputy in Bedford-Stuyvesant on his first day. “If schools were open today, I’d be in school. Because that’s going to be a key part of my mission.”

That meeting was closed to the press, as part of a first day that the New York Times reported “represented a striking departure from tradition, and suggested that he might, at least for now, keep a lower profile than his predecessors.” (Several of them visited schools and held press conferences, according to the Times story, and one served French toast to students — likely with syrup.) Ultimately, that proved to be far from the case: Klein was a relentless leader and divisive public figure, frequently rolling out game-changing new policies during splashy press conferences without first building support from people who worked in schools.

A takeaway from Klein’s first day more than 15 years ago: A quiet first day hardly means a low-key administration — something to watch for now as Carranza digs in.