Shael Polakow-Suransky Inaugurated as Bank Street’s Eighth President
By Lydia Liebman
Recently, Shael Polakow-Suransky was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bank Street College of Education. The beautiful and touching ceremony took place at the stately Cathedral of Saint John The Divine in New York City and commemorated its 100th anniversary.
Yolanda Ferrell-Brown, Chair of the Board of Trustees at Bank Street led the ceremony and introduced a plethora of notable guests. Greetings were extended from New York City Councilman Brad Lander, Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning Phil Weinberg, Deputy Commissioner, Office of P-12 Instructional Support Angelica Infante-Green and The Honorable Carl Heastie of the 83rd Assembly District. Each distinguished greater spoke highly of Polakow-Suransky with all of them mentioning his passions and fervor for education. “He empowered his staff, teachers, and the city at large about what instruction should look like for students in the city of New York,” said Infante-Green to thunderous applause.
Following the greetings, three members of the Bank Street community offered various stories from Bank Street. First to speak was Fouad Dakward, a 2014 graduate of the School for Children, who particularly praised the diversity of Bank Street. Following was Alison McKersie, a faculty member at the School for Children and a Bank Street alum who praised the college for its general open mindedness and value in perspective taking. Finally, faculty member of the Graduate School of Education Cathleen Wiggins spoke of the bright future in store for Bank Street. “As we stand here, our 100 year mark in sight, I, and many others, are filled with a renewed sense of hope, connectiveness and possibility,” she said.
After an introduction by Co-Founder and Co-Director of Community Roots Charter School Allison Keil, Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond delivered a keynote address that praised Bank Street for its teacher preparedness. “Bank Street graduates, in comparison to a random sample of teachers in New York State, are extremely well-prepared and better prepared in virtually every area,” she said. She went on to say that she can always identify a Bank Street-trained teacher when she observes a classroom.
A riveting rendition of “Seasons of Love” from the hit musical Rent performed by the Bank Street for Children 13/14s Chorus was enjoyed next. Former Deputy Mayor and Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, Dennis Walcott, took the podium to present Shael Polakow-Suransky. He described Polakow-Suransky as a person that he has tremendous respect for due to his “keen intellect, desire to do well and his perseverance to make sure he raises the standard for all of us.” Walcott recounted a meeting between himself, Polakow-Suransky and the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg that left him incredibly impressed with Polakow-Suransky’s unwavering answers to the mayor’s “relentless questioning.” He said, “he blew the mayor away by his mind and his understanding of the issues and ability to break down the facts.” Already a believer in Polakow-Suransky, Walcott said this moment made him a “true believer” in the educator.
Finally, Shael Polakow-Suransky was given the opportunity to speak for himself. During his speech, he recounted his humble beginnings in his homeland of South Africa and his journey to where he currently stood. He described his path in education: in 1994, he was a 6th grade math teacher but eventually worked his way up to high school principal, Deputy Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and now, to the position of President of Bank Street. Throughout his career, he said he came across teachers that were educated at Bank Street and found “a different kind of practice where they built learning communities; teachers’ voices were at the heart of decision making.” Polakow-Suransky outlined five guiding principles that he believes are central for reform: 1. Children need to be known well, 2. Educators need to be engaged in authentic learning communities, 3. Evidence must be gathered to support growth. 4. Planning must be purposeful and detailed and 5. Educators must be trusted to make decisions. While he noted that positive changes are indeed occurring (the graduation rate in 1994 was around 44 percent and presently it is 70 percent), in order for change to continue these principles must be adhered to. “We need to build on our strengths,” he said. Toward the end of his speech, he echoed the words of the late and revered Professor Maxine Greene: “I want to awaken people not only to see, not only to feel, but to hold somebody’s hand and to act.” He implored: “join me in imagining a different future as Bank Street founders did 100 years ago and as my friends in South Africa did 25 years ago. We have a responsibility to make sure that teachers and students don’t give up and aren’t given up on.”
With Polakow-Suransky’s dedication and passion behind it, Bank Street is poised to enter its next century with a robust foundation and a future that is bold and bright. #