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.

here's the plan

After long wait, de Blasio backs plan to overhaul admissions at New York City’s elite high schools

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Stuyvesant High School will begin participating in the Discovery program this year.

After sustained pressure from advocates, Mayor Bill de Blasio is backing a two-step plan to reform admissions at eight of the city’s elite high schools and endorsing a specific replacement for the single-test admissions system.

The city’s specialized high schools — considered some of the crown jewels of New York City’s education system — accept students based on a single test score. Over the last decade, they have come under fire for offering admissions to few students of color: While two-thirds of city students are black or Hispanic, only about 10 percent of admissions offers to those schools go to black or Hispanic students.

De Blasio’s solution, laid out in an op-ed in Chalkbeat, would set aside 20 percent of the seats at the eight schools for students from low-income families starting next school year. Students who just missed the test score cut-off would be able to earn one of those set-aside seats through the longstanding “Discovery” program. Just 4 percent of seats were offered through that program in 2017.

The mayor also said he plans to push state lawmakers to change a law that requires admission at three of the schools to be decided by a single test score. That’s something de Blasio campaigned for during his run for mayor in 2014 but hasn’t made a priority since.

Most significantly, de Blasio says for the first time that he backs a system of replacing the admissions test with a system that picks students based on their middle school class rank and state test scores. The middle-school rank component is especially notable, as an NYU Steinhardt report found that the only way to really change the makeup of the elite high schools would be to guarantee admission to the top 10 percent of students at every middle school.

If all of these changes were implemented, de Blasio says that 45 percent of the student bodies at the eight high schools would be black or Latino.

Together, the proposals reflect the most specific plan yet to change a system that, year after year, becomes a symbol of New York City’s racially divided schools. But the changes de Blasio is proposing won’t come easily — and might not come at all.

The part of the plan that the city is promising to do on its own, expand the Discovery program, will only modestly improve diversity by the city’s own admission. And the plan’s more ambitious elements would require buy-in from state lawmakers who have repeatedly resisted de Blasio’s agenda and attempts to change admissions rules.

Meanwhile, the mayor’s plan does not include a move that many legal experts consider to be low-hanging fruit: changing the admissions rules at five of the eight schools without state approval.

While the city’s official position has long been that admissions at all eight schools are set by law, only three schools — Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science, and Brooklyn Technical High School — are specifically mentioned, leaving room for the city to reclassify the others. (De Blasio recently said he would ask lawyers about that change, but has not signaled he plans to act.)

The Discovery program has also proved problematic for de Blasio, in part because it is open to all low-income students — something that is not equivalent to black or Hispanic in New York City. The de Blasio administration has already tripled the program’s size since taking office, but its share of black and Latino students has also shrunk.

A lot of questions about the plan remain unanswered. It’s not clear whether the 20 percent of set-aside seats will be spread across the eight schools evenly, for one, or whether some schools like Stuyvesant will have fewer seats earmarked for Discovery. De Blasio doesn’t explain exactly how an admissions system reliant on middle-school grades and standardized test scores would work.

It’s also unclear how the mayor plans to push against opposition from alumni groups and parents who may worry that changing the admissions rules will lower academic standards, though his rhetoric was sharp in the op-ed.

“Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative,” de Blasio wrote. “It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it.”

So far, de Blasio’s incremental steps to boost diversity at specialized high schools have made little change to the overall student body — and therefore garnered little pushback.

It’s unclear whether the lackluster results caused him to switch strategies. More recently, de Blasio has also been under pressure to address school segregation in the city as a whole.

He may also have been pushed by his new schools chancellor, who has been outspoken on the subject since taking the helm of the school system about two months ago. Chancellor Richard Carranza has been talking about the issue since his very first media interview, and has repeatedly hinted that he is interested in changing their admissions process.

“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,” Carranza said in April. “So I’m looking at that, absolutely.”

sorting the students

Mayor Bill de Blasio: Our specialized schools have a diversity problem. Let’s fix it.

PHOTO: Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio hosts a town hall in Brooklyn in October.

I visit schools across this city and it never fails to energize me. The talent out there is outstanding. The students overflow with promise. But many of the smart kids I meet aren’t getting in to our city’s most prestigious high schools. In fact, they’re being locked out.

The problem is clear. Eight of our most renowned high schools – including Stuyvesant High School, Bronx High School of Science and Brooklyn Technical High School – rely on a single, high-stakes exam. The Specialized High School Admissions Test isn’t just flawed – it’s a roadblock to justice, progress and academic excellence.

If we want this to be the fairest big city in America, we need to scrap the SHSAT and start over.

Let’s select students for our top public high schools in a manner that best reflects the talent these students have, and the reality of who lives in New York City. Let’s have top-flight public high schools that are fair and represent the highest academic standards.

Right now, we are living with monumental injustice. The prestigious high schools make 5,000 admissions offers to incoming ninth-graders. Yet, this year just 172 black students and 298 Latino students received offers. This happened in a city where two out of every three eighth-graders in our public schools are Latino or black.

There’s also a geographic problem. There are almost 600 middle schools citywide. Yet, half the students admitted to the specialized high schools last year came from just 21 of those schools. For a perfect illustration of disparity: Just 14 percent of students at Bronx Science come from the Bronx.

Can anyone defend this? Can anyone look the parent of a Latino or black child in the eye and tell them their precious daughter or son has an equal chance to get into one of their city’s best high schools? Can anyone say this is the America we signed up for?

Our best colleges don’t select students this way. Our top-level graduate schools don’t. There are important reasons why. Some people are good at taking tests, but earn poor grades. Other people struggle with testing, but achieve top grades. The best educational minds get it. You can’t write a single test that captures the full reality of a person.

A single, high-stakes exam is also unfair to students whose families cannot afford, or may not even know about, the availability of test preparation tutors and courses. Now, I’d like to stop and say, I admire the many families who scrape and save to pay for test prep. They are trying in every way to support their children.

But let’s ask ourselves: Why should families who can ill afford test prep have to spend their money on it? Why should families who can easily afford test prep have an advantage over those that cannot?

My administration has been working to give a wider range of excellent students a fair shot at the specialized high schools. Now we are going to go further. Starting in September 2019, we’ll expand the Discovery Program to offer 20 percent of specialized high school seats to economically disadvantaged students who just missed the test cut-off.

This will immediately bring a wider variety of high-performing students, from a wider number of middle schools, to the specialized high schools. For example, the percentage of black and Latino students receiving offers will almost double, to around 16 percent from around 9 percent. The number of middle schools represented will go from around 310 to around 400.

This will also address a fundamental illogic baked into the high-stakes test. A great score and you might be in, but beware a point too low and you might be out. Now, a disadvantaged student who is just a point or two shy of the cut-off won’t be blocked from a great educational opportunity.

For a deeper solution, we will fight alongside our partners in the Assembly and Senate to replace the SHSAT with a new admissions process, selecting students based on a combination of the student’s rank in their middle school and their results in the statewide tests that all middle school children take.

With these reforms, we expect our premier public high schools to start looking like New York City. Approximately 45 percent of students would be Latino or black. As an example of growing geographical fairness, we will quadruple the number of Bronx students admitted.

I’ve talked a lot about bringing equity and excellence to our schools. This new admissions process will give every student in every middle school a fair shot. That’s equity. The new process will ask students to demonstrate hard work over time, and show brilliance in a variety of subjects. That’s excellence.

Anyone who tells you this is somehow going to lower the standard at these schools is buying into a false and damaging narrative. It’s a narrative that traps students in a grossly unfair environment, asks them to live with the consequences, and actually blames them for it. This perpetuates a dangerous and disgusting myth.

So let me be clear. The new system we’re fighting for will raise the bar at the specialized high schools in every way. The pool of talent is going to expand widely and rapidly. That’s going to up the level of competition. The students who emerge from the new process will make these schools even stronger.

They will also make our society stronger. Our most prestigious public high schools aren’t just routes to opportunity for deserving students and their families. They are incubators for the leaders and innovators of tomorrow. The kind of high schools we have today, will determine the kind of New York City we will have tomorrow.

Bill de Blasio is the mayor of New York City.