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.