Shael Polakow-Suransky (born January 10, 1972) is 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 oversees teaching and learning across more than 1,600 district schools.
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.
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 must be recent immigrants to the United States who are learning English for the first time.
Suransky also drew inspiration from educators who had served 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 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 assessment program.
In 2011, Suransky was appointed to his current role as Chief Academic Officer and Senior Deputy Chancellor. In this role, he oversees the Division of Academics, Performance, and Support, which has over 1,280 employees and an annual budget of $400 million dollars. The division is responsible for providing instructional resources, support, and supervision for New York City’s 1600+ schools.
During his tenure as Chief Academic Officer, Suransky has 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 has led the division in launching a multi-pronged approach to build capacity by changing many accountability tools to 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 is developing new partnerships to train principals and has 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 has pushed to shift the system decisively in the direction of a special education inclusion model.
Most recently, Suransky has been leading 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 is also working 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.
- Santos, Fernanda. “New Schools No. 2 Wants More and Better Testing”, The New York Times, December 13, 2010. Retrieved October 17, 2013.
- Walz, Maura. “Meet Shael Polakow-Suransky: DOE’s new second-in-command”, Gotham Schools, November 27, 2010, 12:36 a.m. Retrieved October 17, 2013.
- Goodman, Lawrence. “Upgrading Education”, Brown Alumni Magazine, September/October 2011. Retrieved October 17, 2013.
- “Shael Polakow-Suransky”, Alumni, The Broad Center: Academy, n.d. Web. Retrieved October 17, 2013.
- “Bronx International High School”. High School Directory. NYC Department of Education, n.d. 30 October 2013.
- Polakow-Suransky, Shael. “Reconsideration” [Review of the book Teacher with a Heart: Reflections on Leonard Covello and Community]. In Educational Studies: A Journal of the American Journal of the Educational Studies Association. 32.3 (2001): 337-345
- “A Teacher Who Helps the Many Become One”, The New York Times, July 2, 2003. Retrieved October 25, 2013.
- 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.
- Bloom, Howard, and Rebecca Unterman. “Sustained Progress: New Findings About the Effectiveness and Operations of Small Public High Schools of Choice in New York City”, MDRC, August 2013. Retrieved October 26, 2013.
- “Size matters for New York City high schools as smaller ones make big gains: Study”, NY Daily News, October 24, 2013. Retrieved October 25, 2013.
- The New York City Department of Education, Office of the Chancellor. “Design Your Own (DYO) Periodic Assessment Allocations”. School Allocation Memorandum (SAM). 5 Sept 2007. Retrieved November 5, 2013.
- Henry, Susan. The (only) three ways to improve performance in schools. Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2009. 4 November 2013.
- “Teacher Leadership” Leadership Pathways. New York City Department of Education, 2013. 5 November 2013.
- The New York City Department of Education, Office of the Chancellor. “Schools Chancellor Walcott and City Council Speaker Quinn Announce Pilot Program to Extend School Day & Expansion of Middle School Quality Initiative”. Press Release. 29 Apr 2013. Retrieved November 5, 2013.
- Colvin, Jill. “City Opening 4,000 Full-Day Pre-K Seats in High-Need Neighborhoods”, DNAinfo New York. September 24, 2013, 4:13 p.m. Retrieved November 5, 2013.
- Polakow-Suransky, Shael. “Next Steps on Accountability”, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, September 26, 2013. Retrieved October 21, 2013.
- Schoolwires, Inc. Pathways in Technology Early College High School. NYC Department of Education, 2013. 30 October 2013.
- “Obama: Brooklyn’s P-TECH Setting the State for Student Success”, NY1, October 25, 2013, 8:56 p.m. Retrieved October 30, 2013.
- The New York State Education Department, Office of the Governor. “Governor Cuomo Announces Public-Private Partnerships to Prepare More Than 6,000 Students for High-Skill Jobs”. Press Release. 28 Aug 2013. Retrieved October 30, 2013.