Who's Who at Tweed: A Guide to the Chancellor's Cabinet
By Anna M. Phillips
Parents know their children’s teachers and, usually, the principal. Teachers know the principal, of course, and often the network leader who oversees their school. But many people have no idea who is running the Department of Education from inside the old Tweed Courthouse next to City Hall. In a beautiful, historic building decorated with inspiring artwork made by children, a 14-member cabinet advises the schools chancellor on policy matters, keeps him informed about the state of the schools and, like employees everywhere, competes for the boss’s attention. Here’s a look at the key players:
Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
Dennis M. Walcott
Responsibilities: Running the nation’s largest school system.
Mr. Walcott was appointed chancellor in April 2011 by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, following the resignation of Chancellor Cathleen P. Black. He had previously served for nine years as a deputy mayor and Mr. Bloomberg’s point man on schools. Before that, Mr. Walcott was president of the New York Urban League, one of the city’s premier civil rights groups (its logo is tattooed on his right arm), and executive director of Harlem-Dowling Children’s Services. Mr. Walcott attended public schools in Queens and graduated from Francis Lewis High School. After college, he briefly taught kindergarten at a church-run school in Queens. He has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education from the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and a master’s in social work from Fordham University. He has said that his biggest achievement, to date, was helping avert teacher layoffs through a deal with the United Federation of Teachers reached in June 2011. Here is a Times profile from April, and another as he made a record number of commencement speeches in June.
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Title: Chief Academic Officer and Senior Deputy Chancellor, Division of Academics, Performance and Support
Responsibilities: Everything related to instruction and testing. He’s also responsible for supervising schools and principals through networks and superintendents.
After spending six years teaching math and social studies, working as an assistant principal and founding his own successful high school for students who are recent immigrants, Mr. Polakow-Suransky went to work at Tweed in 2004. He entered as a deputy in the Office of New Schools and rose to become chief accountability officer in 2009. He was elevated to his current role as part of the fracas over the appointment last fall of Ms. Black, a magazine executive with no education experience, as chancellor. State law requires the chancellor to have education credentials, but the state education commissioner decided to grant Ms. Black the required waiver on the condition that Mayor Bloomberg also designate a second in command with the necessary credentials. Mr. Polakow-Suransky, who has been working in the city schools since 1994, became that person. He is now in charge of rolling out the new national standards for what students should learn in math and English, and oversees the school system’s testing and accountability programs. Mr. Polakow-Suransky graduated from a magnet high school in Ann Arbor, Mich. He has a bachelor’s degree in education and urban studies from Brown University, and a master’s in educational leadership from Bank Street College of Education.
Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
Title: Chief Operating Officer
Responsibilities: Triage and coordination.
Ms. Conforme has worked for the department since 2003 and was named chief operating officer in October 2011 following the departure of Sharon L. Greenberger. Previously, and for less than one year, Ms. Conforme held the position of chief financial officer. Before that, she oversaw the network of “empowerment schools” — more than 300 schools whose principals took on more responsibility in exchange for less oversight and support from the central administration — and served as deputy director of finance and administration. Before joining the Department of Education, she was director of human resources at Columbia University Medical Center. Ms. Conforme attended public schools in the Bronx and graduated from Murry Bergtraum High School in Lower Manhattan. She has a bachelor’s degree from Syracuse University and a master’s in public policy from Columbia University.
Title: Chief Financial Officer
Responsibilities: In better times, deciding how to spend. Lately, deciding where to cut.
A 25-year veteran of the city Education Department, Mr. Tragale rose to his current position in October of 2011 after working briefly as deputy chief financial officer. Previously, he was deputy chief operating officer in the division of school support and instruction. Mr. Tragale has held management positions throughout the department’s many branches and shifting organizational structures. He has worked in the central budget office, the community school district financial offices, and the regional operating center. He has a bachelor’s degree from Fordham University. In the early 2000s, when he was a business manager for District 28 in Queens, Mr. Tragale found himself in an uncomfortable situation when a salesman for Candle Business Systems tried to bribe him into making purchases from the company. According to a report by the office of the special commissioner of investigation, Mr. Tragale refused and the salesman was charged with bribery.
Dorita P. Gibson
Title: Deputy Chancellor, Division of Equity and Access
Responsibilities: Overseeing District 79, a group of alternative schools that include G.E.D. programs and adult education, as well as schools for incarcerated students. She also runs programs aimed at closing the achievement gap.
Dr. Gibson took this position, which is new, in May 2011. At the time of her appointment, she had been working in the city’s public schools for nearly 30 years. She was previously an assistant principal of Junior High School 185 in Flushing, Queens, principal of Intermediate School 25, also in Flushing, and deputy superintendent of District 25. In 2002, when Mayor Bloomberg won mayoral control of schools and the local district lines and controls were erased, she became superintendent of Region 7, responsible for overseeing all of the schools in Staten Island and parts of southwest Brooklyn. When the department reorganized the way that schools get support, Dr. Gibson became the deputy chief operating officer of one of the city’s four support teams for schools. When another reorganization took place and her support organization was dissolved, Dr. Gibson became the senior supervising superintendent. She has a bachelor’s degree from Albertus Magnus College and both a master’s degree and a doctorate in education from New York University, where she studied programs focused on students who perform poorly in otherwise successful middle schools.
NYC Department of Education
Title: Deputy Chancellor, Division of Portfolio Planning
Responsibilities: Opening schools, closing schools and co-locating schools are the most visible. Also manages federal school-improvement grant programming and oversees enrollment process and early-childhood education.
Hired by Chancellor Klein, Mr. Sternberg came to Tweed in April 2010. He began his career in Teach for America, and working in the South Bronx for three years. In 2004, at the age of 30, he was the founding principal of the Bronx Lab School, which was one of six schools to replace Evander Childs High School. The Lab School quickly became a proof point for the Department of Education’s small-school agenda because of its success in pushing poor minority students past graduation and into colleges. As principal, Mr. Sternberg publicly supported Mr. Klein’s policies. He said often that his students benefited from being in a small school — one of many the Bloomberg administration created under the belief that they would personalize education in a way large high schools could not — and he championed the chancellor’s efforts to allow some principals to control their budgets and choose their own curriculum. In 2009, Mr. Sternberg left his school to become a White House fellow in the federal Department of Education, before returning to New York as deputy chancellor. Mr. Sternberg has a bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and master’s degrees in business administration and education from Harvard University.
Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times
Title: Deputy Chancellor, Division of Operations
Responsibilities: Directing the modernization of old school buildings, as well as their technological improvements. She oversees the School Construction Authority, food services, student transportation and other facility matters.
One of the few top education officials who have been in place since Mr. Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, Ms. Grimm has worked in government for most of her career. In her current role, she oversees aspects of the educational system that parents and students often experience most directly (e.g. the quality of school food and the upkeep of school buildings). In 2007, it was Ms. Grimm who was called upon to answer for the city’s management of midwinter cutbacks to school bus routes, which left some students waiting for buses that never came. And in 2010, angry parents and students confronted her over changes to the city’s policy on bake sales to limit what students could sell and when. Before the Department of Education, where she arrived in 2002 as deputy chancellor for finance and administration, Ms. Grimm spent nearly five years as a deputy state comptroller. Before that, she was deputy city finance commissioner — a job she left in 1995, when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani dismissed many employees who had worked for his predecessor, David N. Dinkins. She is a trustee of New York Law School, where she taught a course on municipal finance for years and from which she graduated in 1980. She has a bachelor’s degree from Manhattanville College and a master of laws degree from New York University.
Columbia Teachers College
David A. Weiner
Title: Deputy Chancellor, Division of Talent, Labor and Innovation
Responsibilities: Relations with the teachers’ union, the creation of a new teacher evaluation system and the Innovation Zone — the city’s effort to use technology and other means to transform classrooms.
Mr. Weiner, a former New York City principal, was brought back to the department in May 2011 from Philadelphia, where he served as chief academic officer, overseeing all of the Philadelphia school district’s academic departments, and chief accountability officer. Before going to Philadelphia, Mr. Weiner was the founding principal of P.S. 503 in Brooklyn, where he worked until 2008. Before that, he was the principal of P.S. 314, an elementary school in Sunset Park that was split into two smaller elementary schools (one was P.S. 503). He began his career in education as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher in the Boston area, then worked as a third-grade teacher in San Francisco, where Arlene Ackerman, then the schools chief, made him principal of a school. Mr. Weiner worked for Ms. Ackerman again in Philadelphia, where he oversaw the district’s Renaissance Schools initiative and a program that would have allocated money to schools based on what type of students they have (it was never implemented). He graduated from Trinity College and has master’s degrees from Harvard University and Teachers College of Columbia University.
Title: Deputy Chancellor, Division for Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners
Responsibilities: To work on behalf of students with disabilities and English Language Learners to prepare them for college, careers and independent living
Ms. Rello-Anselmi has been working in New York City public schools for 33 years. She began her career at P.S. 108, where she served as a special education teacher during the first 12 years, and the remaining 16 years as a supervisor and principal. In her most recent role as Cluster One Leader, she oversaw 324 schools and 12 school support networks. In June 2012, Chancellor Dennis Walcott brought Ms. Rello-Anselmi into the department’s central administration to lead the special education reform initiative, A Shared Path to Success. Ms. Rello-Anselmi is deeply committed to improving access to opportunities and rigorous curriculum to all students, particularly for students with disabilities and English Language Learners, to prepare them for college, careers, and independent living. Ms. Rello-Anselmi earned her Masters in special education from New York University.
Title: General Counsel to the Chancellor
Responsibilities: Chief lawyer for the Education Department — he oversees compliance, legal, and investigative matters.
Mr. Best is one of the longest-serving members of the chancellor’s cabinet. He has been counsel to the chancellor since 2004, and before that was deputy counsel to Mayor Bloomberg. In his current role, Mr. Best helps ensure that the department adheres to the state law that gave Mayor Bloomberg control of the city’s schools, and follows the complicated series of procedures it set up regarding making changes to schools. Those rules have at times proven too much for the city, as in 2010, when the teachers’ union successfully sued to prevent the closing of 19 public schools that city officials believed were under-performing. The following year, the union sued again over the same issue, but this time the court sided with the city. Mr. Best has also led an effort by the department to fight more vigorously in court before paying for disabled students’ education in private schools. He graduated from Williams College and Harvard Law School.
Title: Executive Director for Family and Community Engagement
Responsibilities: Overseeing the department’s communication with parents and strengthening relationships between schools and parents.
Mr. Mojica is the newest member of the chancellor’s cabinet. He joined in August after spending five years working in the office of Rubén Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president. He was hired after the department committed several prominent blunders in its interactions with parents and after Chancellor Walcott announced that improved outreach to parents would be a top priority for his administration. In the Bronx, Mr. Mojica was the director of education policy and youth services, a position that had him fielding questions from parents and representing the view of Mr. Diaz, who has often criticized the department’s policies. Mr. Mojica has also served as the Bronx representative to the Panel for Educational Policy, the governing body that remains after the Board of Education was dissolved. He has written about how his son’s autism diagnosis inspired him to become an advocate for more research and support services. He graduated from Xavier High School, a private Roman Catholic school in Chelsea, and has a bachelor’s degree from New York University.
Saskia Levy Thompson
Title: Chief Executive Officer of the Office of School Support
Responsibilities: Managing the department’s Children First networks, clusters of schools that receive instructional and operational support together.
Ms. Levy Thompson joined the cabinet under Chancellor Walcott, having come to the department in August 2010 as the deputy chief schools officer in the Division of School Support and Instruction. Previously, Ms. Levy Thompson had been a senior associate at MDRC, a social research organization, where she co-authored several reports on the efficacy of small high schools and how best to help teenagers who have disengaged from school. For three years before that, Ms. Levy Thompson was the executive director of Urban Assembly, a public school management organization in New York City that works with more than a dozen schools. She graduated from Hunter College High School and New York University.
Title: Deputy Chief Academic Officer for Instruction
Responsibilities: Managing the implementation of new curriculum standards known as the common core, including training for teachers and principals.
Like most schools, New York City’s public schools have until 2014 to embrace a new set of curriculum standards, and it is Mr. Thomases’s job to see that they do so. Appointed to the cabinet by Chancellor Walcott, Mr. Thomases is the deputy to Mr. Polakow-Suransky. In addition to overseeing the implementation of the common core standards, Mr. Thomases supervises the school quality reviews that are performed annually. He will also be coordinating a study of 40 high schools that have had success graduating black and Latino students as part of a new initiative of Mayor Bloomberg. For five years, from 2004 to 2009, Mr. Thomases was the chief academic officer in the Office of New Schools and the Office of Portfolio Development, where he helped open new schools and trained over 200 new principals in partnership with the New York City Leadership Academy. From 1993 until he moved over to Tweed, Mr. Thomases worked at El Puente Academy for Peace and Justice, a small school in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, as a teacher and assistant principal. Mr. Thomases has a bachelor’s degree from Wesleyan University and a master’s degree in educational leadership from Bank Street College of Education.
Anna Phillips and Toby Lyles contributed reporting and research.
Anna M. Phillips is a member of the SchoolBook staff. Follow her on Twitter @annamphillips.