On Thursday, October 7, the Bank Street College Alumni Association (BSCAA) hosted the 2021 Sunset Chat, an annual conversation with Bank Street President Shael Polakow-Suransky, GSE ’00, and a networking opportunity for Bank Street Graduate School alumni. The virtual get-together offered a welcoming space for graduates to connect and hear about Bank Street’s recent work as a leader in progressive education for children and their teachers.
This year’s discussion was particularly meaningful as students return to in-person learning after more than a year of disruption and trauma. Polakow-Suransky identified a number of challenges that the education system continues to face as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including that “some lawmakers and states have decided to pass laws prohibiting masks and mask mandates, criminalizing history lessons that talk honestly about racism and that’s making everything that much harder in some places.”
Emphasizing this difficult moment for educators and schools everywhere, he continued, “I think the teacher’s core task right now is to rebuild relationships, to re-engage students in learning, rebuild trust, and create a context that will allow all students to thrive as they make up for lost time.”
The president also spoke about several new Bank Street initiatives dedicated to furthering the College’s commitment to high-quality education for all. He highlighted the Graduate School’s efforts to expand online degree offerings, with 15 percent of graduate students now learning through online modality. He also discussed several new partnership programs, including a secondary special education cohort led by the Graduate School and the New York City Department of Education launching in January 2021, as well as a new Early Childhood Leaders Fellowship for leaders in early non-profit and government roles, funded by the Kellogg Foundation, among other projects.
Throughout the chat, alumni were invited to ask questions, share their own experiences, and engage in reflection as we continue to navigate this challenging moment in time. Many spoke to their experiences during the pandemic and the obstacles they’ve faced as educators.
For Bank Street College Alumni Association (BSCAA) President Erica Davis, GSE ’11, most of her time working as a school principal has been during the pandemic, and she sees an overwhelming need to continue supporting families. Davis noted that the system was not prepared to support parents and school leaders during this time, and posted the question, “How do we create school environments that support human beings moving through trauma?”
One suggestion came from Polakow-Suransky, who identified the CCRE Collective online cohort program as a way to support building inclusive and anti-racist environments where children, families, and staff of all backgrounds can thrive.
For Amy Rosenfeld Kass, GSE ’97, learning to work remotely and balance two part-time jobs were among the challenges she faced as a result of the pandemic. Kass is an author and a Bank Street Alumni Tutoring Network member. Another alumna, Leslie Jones Sessler, GSE ’92, former school principal and educator for 32 years who now homeschools her own children, spoke about the high numbers of Black and Brown teachers leaving the field, asking if this was an issue Bank Street could help support.
Polakow-Suransky responded, “It is definitely a priority for Bank Street to have more teachers of color both on our staff and amongst our graduate students. We have almost doubled the percentages of teachers of color over the last five years and a lot of that has been through forming partnerships with school districts that also share that commitment and finding either individuals or institutions, foundations that will help to fund some of the tuition.”
The president also mentioned Bank Street’s Prepared To Teach program, which focuses on identifying sustainable funding for paid teacher residencies and diversifying the teacher workforce. This is just one of the many ways Bank Street is paving the way to help schools retain high-quality, committed educators and build supportive cultures for all teachers and students.
“We know how much our alumni community values opportunities like the Sunset Chat to come together, network, share experiences in the field, and stay updated on what’s going on at Bank Street,” said Eric Gutierrez, Director of Alumni Relations. “We look forward to this event every year as a way for our exceptional graduates to connect with one another and hear directly from the president about Bank Street’s exciting new work.”
For more from the event, watch the 2021 Sunset Chat recording