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.

End of an era

Longtime deputy chancellor Kathleen Grimm to retire

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Department of Education Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm (left) at a City Council hearing to discuss the department's five-year capital plan in March 2014.

Kathleen Grimm, the deputy chancellor for operations and a fixture in the Department of Education under four chancellors, is stepping down, Chancellor Carmen Fariña announced Wednesday.

Grimm oversaw a sprawling portion of the department, including the offices overseeing safety, school support, school food, athletics, space planning, enrollment, human resources, and construction. The only official to have remained in a top post at Tweed since the beginning of the Bloomberg era, Grimm saw her responsibilities expand even further under Fariña, who moved some offices under Grimm when she shrunk the department’s cabinet.

“It is with deep personal regret that I announce a leave pending retirement of Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm, an esteemed colleague who has worked tirelessly to create safe, nurturing environments in which all of our students can learn and thrive,” Fariña said in an email to department staff members.

Grimm, a tax lawyer, was brought on in 2002 for her budgeting and finance expertise and experience in navigating city and state bureaucracy. She had previously served in the state comptroller’s office and the city finance department.

Over her 14-year career at the Department of Education, Grimm preferred to stay behind the scenes, but was thrust into the spotlight when changes to school bus routes, budget cuts, and space planning made headlines.

Her oversight of the city’s transportation of students meant she faced fierce criticism when repeated changes to bus routes angered parents and City Council members. Her oversight of the capital budget and the Blue Book, which sets guidelines for school space use, also made her a frequent target of class-size reduction advocates, who often said the city’s calculations did not reflect reality.

But Grimm was revered within the department for her calm under pressure. She frequently defended the school system in front of the City Council, bearing the brunt of then-education committee chair Eva Moskowitz’s relentless criticism of the city’s toilet-paper offerings in 2004 and, more recently, testifying at hearings on toxic lighting fixtures and school overcrowding.

“Cool and effective, Kathleen stayed for the full twelve years of the Bloomberg administration and did a tough, unglamorous job with distinction,” Klein wrote of Grimm in his memoir “Lessons of Hope.”

On Wednesday, Fariña offered her own praise. “As a senior member of my leadership team, Deputy Chancellor Grimm has provided a strong foundation for our most critical initiatives, including Pre-K for All, Community Schools, and our expanded school support and safety services,” she said.

Grimm’s chief of staff Elizabeth Rose will take over as interim acting deputy chancellor during a search for Grimm’s replacement, Fariña said.

year in review

In first year as chancellor, Fariña counts on fellow educators to drive changes

PHOTO: Stephanie Snyder
Chancellor Carmen Fariña speaks to superintendents and principals overseeing the city's designated renewal schools.

To understand how things have changed since Carmen Fariña became schools chancellor, consider where she has chosen to be on roughly 200 occasions this year, often five times per week: in schools.

She uses the hour-long visits to find model schools that other educators can tour and to size up principals, noting whether teachers seem surprised to see their bosses (a sign they aren’t poking into classrooms enough) and if the principals bring any deputies along for the tours (a hint they know how to delegate). She inspects students’ writing and asks the principal to show her a strong teacher in action and a weak one.

Twelve months into her stint leading the nation’s largest school system, Fariña’s attention to such details seems misplaced to some critics, who worry that it comes at the expense of big-picture thinking and suggests a shift away from the greater autonomy that principals gained under the previous administration.

But to her many admirers, the visits reflect a belief that even in a system of 1.1 million students and 75,000 or so teachers, change can happen school by school and classroom by classroom when educators are empowered, without the seismic policy shakeups that seemed to occur routinely under her recent predecessors. As Fariña, who has spent nearly half a century working in schools, likes to say, “The answers are in the classroom.” In other words, this is educator-driven education reform.

“There’s a sense,” said Alison Coviello, principal of P.S. 154 in the Bronx, “that we’re all in this together.”

When Mayor Bill de Blasio pulled Fariña from semi-retirement last January, she decided that she would have to roll back the Bloomberg-era policies she disagreed with even as she put her own into place: To “undo while [she’s] doing,” as she told Chalkbeat earlier this year.

And that’s just what she’s done. She downsized the office that helped create new schools — a signature Bloomberg initiative — while resurrecting the department devoted to teacher training. She re-empowered superintendents, who were marginalized under Bloomberg, and insisted that would-be principals and superintendents both spend more years in schools (a rejection of the Bloombergian idea that talent trumps experience). And she axed the Bloomberg policies that tied student promotion to test scores and assigned schools letter grades as she launched her own signature program, which sends educators to visit successful schools to pick up ideas.

That program, called Learning Partners, exemplifies Fariña’s approach. It is educator-led, cooperative, and subtle, allowing Fariña to spread her ideas through proxies rather than edicts.

“We have gotten more schools to change practices not by mandating, but by collaborating,” she said in an interview Monday. “I could have said across the board, ‘Every middle school needs to do X, Y and Z.’ And we didn’t do that.”

She also helped forge new contracts with the principals and the teachers unions, which had given up on negotiating with the previous administration. The teachers got a big payout in the contract (though not big enough to satisfy everyone), while Fariña was able to embed time for training and interacting with parents into teachers’ weekly schedules (at the cost of student-tutoring time, which was repurposed). Cynics charged that the city secured the contracts by giving into most of the unions’ demands, but Fariña argues that they were the product of her collaborative approach.

“What we got out of those contracts,” she said, “probably would not have been possible without that kind of partnership.”

She also helped the mayor fulfill his promise to get 53,000 four-year-olds into classrooms.

“How could I forget?” Fariña said. “Pre-K!”

For all that she has already done and undone, Fariña has a big year ahead of her. On Monday, she ticked off a few of the biggest items on her to-do list.

First, she must help de Blasio add the 20,000 additional pre-kindergarten seats he has promised, even as charter schools demand more space of their own. Then, she must turn two of his most ambitious plans into reality: to convert nearly 130 schools into service hubs for students and their families, and to turn around more than 90 low-performing schools.

That last task will be especially daunting. Rather than shut down chronically underachieving schools or replace their staffs, Fariña has proposed lifting them up through a mix of supports for students and coaching for educators. That is a big gamble, which Fariña made clear at a meeting Monday with the leaders of those struggling schools.

“I’m holding you even more accountable,” she told the principals. “Because I went out on a limb, as did Mayor de Blasio, and said, ‘We’re not closing schools. We’re giving everybody a second chance.’”