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Meet Shael Polakow-Suransky: DOE's new second-in-command

State Education Commissioner David Steiner is expected to grant Hearst Magazines executive Cathleen Black the waiver she needs to become schools chancellor on Monday, on one condition: that she appoint current Deputy Chancellor Shael Polakow-Suransky as her chief academic officer.

Polakow-Suransky, who has worked in the city schools for 16 years, will be responsible for the administration of the city’s education policies and serve as Black’s chief advisor, according to a letter Mayor Michael Bloomberg sent Steiner today.

Here are four things to know about the city’s new educator-in-chief, who will serve as second-in-command to Black’s manager-in-chief:

1. His theory of change revolves around improving “instruction,” which is a different way of thinking than that of many people at Tweed.

Many officials in Joel Klein’s administration, including Klein himself, emphasize structural changes to improve the New York City schools. They favor policies such as closing down struggling schools, offering pay bonuses to educators whose students improve their performance on tests, and giving more power to principals to determine their own curricula and tests.

Polakow-Suransky approaches improving education policy from the opposite direction. He looks through the lens of instruction — that is, the relationships between teachers and students — rather than starting with incentives or organizational structures.

“What [Polakow-Suransky] is particularly strong at is at taking [classroom] experience and translating it into useful information for decision-making at a policy level,” said Garth Harries, who oversaw Polakow-Suransky in the city’s New Schools Office and then worked as a colleague as Suransky advanced in the department.

When Harries — a lawyer by training who was charged with determining how New York City uses its school building space — began making policy, he turned to Polakow-Suransky to figure out how dividing large school buildings into multiple small schools would affect the classroom.

“[Polakow-Suransky] was someone I could sit down with and have a very deep conversation about the instructional needs that students and teachers have and how that translated into space needs,” said Harries, who now works in the New Haven public school system. “It ended up being used on the operational side of the house, but it was designed with instructional needs in mind.”

Another case in point is the “data inquiry team,” an innovation school officials credit Polakow-Suransky with creating. Inquiry teams ask groups of teachers to meet and use evidence of student learning – everything from test scores to student work — to determine how they should improve their instruction. Polakow-Suransky spoke at length about the idea and its importance to him in a sit-down interview with two GothamSchools reporters last month.

The main purpose of the interview was to talk about his plans to improve the city’s online data warehouse system, ARIS. But in the free-flowing conversation, Polakow-Suransky repeatedly emphasized that all of his policy work aims at improving the way teachers teach their students — which he called “instruction.”

He also emphasized his insistence on making policies such as data inquiry teams voluntary for teachers, rather than mandatory. He argued that change is more likely to occur if teachers choose to make it, rather than being forced. In a 2009 interview with GothamSchools, Polakow-Suransky said:

My job is not to intervene at an individual school level and suggest a change, but to provide rich, data-based portraits and qualitative portraits using the quality review so that the folks that are supporting schools can help the school go to its next step.

2. His own education was at progressive public schools and at Brown.

Polakow-Suransky is a graduate of Community High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., a small progressive school founded in 1972. The small public magnet school is designed as an “open campus” where students design their own courses of study, and sometimes design their own courses.

From there, Polakow-Suransky moved to Brown University, where he finished with a degree in education and urban studies.

Polakow-Suransky also possesses all of the credentials that state law requires to lead a school district without the waiver that his soon-to-be boss will receive. He earned a master’s degree in educational leadership from the Bank Street School of Education, and he received a New York State District Administrator Certificate in 2006. He is also a 2008 graduate of the Broad Superintendent’s Academy, a leadership program designed to train a new breed of management-minded education officials.

3. He taught math and history for six years before founding one of the first small Bronx high schools.

Polakow-Suransky’s career in the New York City public schools began in 1994, as a history and mathematics teacher at Crossroads Middle School in Manhattan. After teaching there for three years, he moved to Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School, where he continued to teach math for another three years.

He then spent one school year as the assistant principal at Bread and Roses, and then left to found the Bronx International High School in 2001. The school, which was designed specifically to serve students learning English, was one of the first small schools to be opened in the city. The movement to open small high schools has since become one of the hallmarks of the Bloomberg administration.

“He was really on the cutting edge of the small school movement in the city and really helped shape what happened in the Bronx and then throughout the whole city,” said Robert Hughes, the head of New Visions for Public Schools, the organization dedicated to launching and supporting small schools in the city.

“He’s a little like a really skilled surfer who rode the wave of small schools as it moved through the Bronx and then the city,” Hughes said.

After leaving the Bronx International High School in 2004, Polakow-Suransky has held a variety of positions within the Department of Education, 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 DOE in 2009, Polakow-Suransky took his position. He was named Deputy Chancellor of Performance and Accountability earlier this year.

4. He is obsessed with making better tests and is working on the national effort to build them.

In addition to his duties overseeing the city’s school accountability policies, Polakow-Suransky has been tasked with helping schools introduce the Common Core standards into their classrooms. Under Polakow-Suransky, city schools began that effort even before New York State officially adopted the standards.

Polakow-Suransky is also part of the leadership team of the group of 26 states that won a federal grant this year to build new assessments based around the Common Core standards. Those tests, which New York State has committed to using by 2014, will overhaul both what kinds of state exams students sit for and when they sit for them, Polakow-Suransky has said.

As part of that work, Polakow-Suransky has worked closely with state officials, particularly Deputy Education Commissioner John King. The strong impression Polakow-Suransky left on state officials was part of the reason he got the nod today to ascend to the city’s number two position in the school system, said a person familiar with the negotiations.

At a recent panel on how federal education policy is affecting local school districts, Polakow-Suransky described his interest in standardized tests as being rooted in everyday teaching:

[U]ltimately the reason for assessment is to motivate what happens in the classroom. If it doesn’t actually lead to good practice in the classroom then it’s undermining practice in the classroom. And so this is an opportunity. This is a moment where there’s an opportunity to shift the direction of practice in the classroom and to push on the level of rigor and to actually figure out what is it that kids and teachers need in order to engage in that type of practice.

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A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or [email protected].

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.
Sincerely,

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”