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Exploring Systems-Level Leadership: Anna Shurak

Anna Shurak was a part of the 2004 Philadelphia corps. After spending most of her career to date with the School District of Philadelphia, she joined the Camden City School District as Chief School Support Officer.

Anna Shurak

March 25, 2015

Anna is one of two alumni now working in Camden’s schools through the School Systems Leadership Fellowship.

As part of this year’s School Systems Leadership cohort, you’re the Chief School Support Officer with Camden City Public Schools. Can you tell us about your role, and some of the unique challenges and opportunities it’s presented you?

My role as Chief School Support Officer is to support, coach, manage and evaluate principals. Within this capacity I work with school leaders daily to ensure they are able to provide the best possible opportunities for the students and families that they serve. There are two Chief School Support Officers in Camden. We work together to plan and deliver bi-weekly professional development to school leaders and set the instructional vision and framework for the district. It is a unique role in that the vision and structure has been set for coaching to be the priority; however, we still have the responsibility of evaluating our leaders. It has been an amazing opportunity to work in this capacity but also challenging to take on this type of a role in a district in which I did not know many of the principals, staff, or nuisances of the prior system.

Before entering the Fellowship you held a number of school-based roles, ranging from classroom teacher to Curriculum & Instruction Specialist to Principal. Can you tell us about your professional path prior to the Fellowship?

Before the fellowship, my professional path had been with the School District of Philadelphia. I held a number of roles: teacher, Assistant Principal, Principal, and Special Assistant to the High School Superintendent. Most recently I made the decision to go back to the classroom as a teacher and Curriculum and Instruction Specialist at Strawberry Mansion High School. After the SRC had voted to merge three high schools in North Philadelphia (Fitzsimons, Rhodes and Strawberry Mansion), our team decided to leave the High School Superintendent’s office to take on this merger. At the time, the Assistant Superintendent took the role of Principal and I took on the position of Assistant Principal. Shortly after, we learned that the School District of Philadelphia was going to lay off all Assistant Principals. I resigned as an Assistant Principal prior to the layoff and took the opportunity of a teaching position in my school in order to stay with my students and team at Strawberry Mansion, and to continue to assist with the transition and merger.

What interested you in school systems-level leadership and led you to apply for the Fellowship?

Rhodes High School was the only comprehensive high school to make AYP in the School District of Philadelphia: we had 98% of graduating classes accepted to college, and we improved proficiency rates exponentially. I was a part of a successful transformation of a public-neighborhood high school and principal of my placement school, yet despite our progress, growth and success, school system policy and decisions caused our school to close. I realized that any one school can be excellent, but for entire systems to improve, there has to be change at a systems level. After working in the high school superintendent’s office and seeing the disparity amongst the 52 high schools in Philadelphia, my own conviction to learn more about systems level leadership strengthened. I decided to apply to the fellowship to learn and develop as a leader for systems level work.

The Fellowship comprises your full-time role in the district, six seminars with other members of your cohort, and executive coaching. How do you balance all this?

The fellowship is a big commitment. However, I have never received such impactful, relevant professional development in my career. Therefore, the requirements of the fellowship help me to be better for students and staff in Camden and I never feel like it is “too much.” It has been important for me to prioritize the fellowship in the same way I do my own work in order to get the most out of all aspects of the programming. Once I made that conscious shift in my mind it actually became easier to balance.

What are your hopes for education in this region over the next five or ten years?

Over the next five to ten years my hopes for education in this region is that all of us involved can become less divisive with one another and more united. No matter what “camp” or “organization” or “role” each of us play, we can all be better if we take time to learn from one another, value the work of each other, and ground ourselves in the future of the children in this region.

What advice do you have for someone considering pursuing a systems-level leadership role?

Take systems-level leadership seriously. It is not about a “title,” the ability to make decisions, receiving more pay, etc; it is a responsibility that should not be take lightly. Be mindful of the impact you can have and operate with humility, thoughtfulness and strategy around the decisions you make, as they may affect people and families for much longer than the tenure you personally serve. Be grounded in what you stand for and operate from this place in all of your decision-making. Most importantly, keep students at the front of your thoughts and mind always. You may see children less and deal with adults more, but remember that students are at the heart and center of our work and providing them with the best educational opportunities possible must always drive you!