Shael Polakow-Suransky (born January 10, 1972) is the president of the Bank Street College of Education. Prior to this role, he was the second-in-command at the New York City Department of Education, serving as Chief Academic Officer and Senior Deputy Chancellor. In the nation’s largest school system, Suransky oversaw teaching and learning across more than 1,600 district schools and was a strong advocate for teacher and principal autonomy, balanced accountability and reforms designed to improve learning experiences for the City's most vulnerable students.
Early years and personal life
A South African native, Suransky’s parents were anti-Apartheid activists who immigrated to Michigan in 1973. Suransky attended Ann Arbor's alternative Community High School. In high school, Suransky paired his fellow students with younger children in a peer-education program that promoted conversations about tolerance; the program spread throughout his school district. He spent his senior year conducting an independent study in Durban, South Africa, at the height of the anti-Apartheid movement.
Suransky studied education and urban studies at Brown University, where he worked closely with prominent educator Ted Sizer. Sizer was known for his belief in progressive education, and developed the Coalition for Essential Schools (CES), a collection of experimental schools dedicated to reforming secondary education by creating a focus on authentic student learning. Sizer advised Suransky during research for Suransky’s senior thesis, which used a comparative analysis of a South African school and a community organizing group called Direct Action for Rights and Equality to explore the intersection between education and political organizing.
Suransky is married to Cynthia Hanawalt.
In 1994, Suransky commenced his education career as a math and social studies teacher at Crossroads Middle School in Harlem. After three years, he was asked to take on the role of founding math teacher and eventually assistant principal at a new Harlem high school, Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School, the school combined a focus on arts and social justice in its curriculum.
Inspired by New York City’s small schools movement and aware of the added struggles that English language learners face, Suransky founded a new, small district school, Bronx International High School, in 2001. In order to be admitted to the school, students had to fail the City's English language assessment and had to be recent immigrants to the United States. The school was specifically designed to support language development and literacy for a population of students historically neglected by New York's large comprehensive high schools and currently serves students who speak 37 different languages. Suransky also drew inspiration from educators who worked with similar student populations; in a 2001 book review of Vito Perrone’s Teacher with a Heart: Reflections on Leonard Covello and Community, Suransky writes that “the task of rebuilding school communities that can support students and one day extend beyond into the community is formidable” but that he was driven by “a sense of possibility.”
In embracing that possibility, Suransky adopted Sizer’s ideas to build a school that gave teachers the tools and conditions under which they could experiment and tailor their teaching. For example, he placed teachers in groups and assigned each group an advisory – a small number of students to support with socio-emotional concerns. He encouraged teachers to build interdisciplinary curricula and gave them the freedom to alter the length of periods to suit their instructional needs. Similarly, he built accountability systems at his school around the philosophy that assessments should be authentic, valuable tools employed by teachers and schools to actively engage students in reflecting on their own learning. The school was able to support students’ needs through its flexible structure, as well as partnerships with the International Rescue Committee, a New York-based refugee relief organization, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. By 2006, Bronx International’s graduation rate was 72 percent — nearly triple the rate of other city schools serving similar immigrant populations.
In 2004, Suransky joined the central office at the Department of Education. He first served as Deputy CEO for the Office of New Schools, designing leadership training for new school principals and expanding what he learned and achieved at Bronx International and other successful small schools to hundreds of schools leaders across the City. The new small schools are earning success with some of the student groups who have historically been most at-risk. A 2013 study by the nonpartisan research firm MDRC found that small schools, “which serve mostly disadvantaged students of color,” achieve graduation rates 9.5 percentage points higher than other schools who serve comparable students and lead to higher college readiness rates.
Suransky later became the Deputy Chancellor for Performance and Accountability, working to reform the central bureaucracy in an effort to make the Department of Education more responsive to the needs of school leaders who were seeking autonomy to make key instructional and operational decisions. As the Department of Education shifted its focus to accountability, he launched a program called Design Your Own Assessment, which ultimately involved more than 200 schools, to create innovative teacher designed formative assessments as an alternative to the City’s standardized periodic assessments.
In 2011, Suransky was appointed to the role of Chief Academic Officer and Senior Deputy Chancellor. In this role, he oversaw the Division of Academics, Performance, and Support, which had over 1,280 employees and an annual budget of $400 million. The division was responsible for providing instructional resources, support, and supervision for New York City’s 1600+ schools.
During his tenure as Chief Academic Officer, Suransky focused on building schools’ capacity to strengthen what Richard Elmore calls the “instructional core,” or “the relationship between teachers and students in the presence of content”. To this end, he led the division in launching a multi-pronged approach to build capacity by changing many accountability tools to create more balance and shift the focus away from high-stakes standardized exams and supporting efforts to broaden the use of more authentic, performance-based assessments. In addition, the division developed new partnerships to train principals and created a new teacher leadership program and strong teacher residency programs. Suransky has overseen work to create strong extended-day models at the middle school level that incorporate arts and small-group literacy supports and served in senior leadership when the City added over 4,000 pre-Kindergarten slots in high poverty neighborhoods. To support students with disabilities, he pushed to shift the system decisively in the direction of a special education inclusion model.
Most recently, Suransky led the City’s work around increasing college and career readiness rates, in part through the implementation of the Common Core Learning Standards and new accountability measures Suransky also worked to address college and career readiness by supporting the creation of innovative schools like Pathways in Technology Early College High School (P-TECH), which partners with IBM and the City University of New York on a six-year education culminating in a high school diploma and associate’s degree in applied science, computer information systems, or electromechanical engineering. The model, which has been lauded by President Obama and spread to Chicago, will expand to 16 locations across New York State in the coming year and the USDOE is providing similar grants nationally to expand the model in other states.
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- Polakow-Suransky, Shael. Review of the book Reclaiming Assessment: A Better Alternative to the Accountability Agenda by Chris W. Gallagher. In Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice. 20.4 (2007): 107-117.
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