Souza Kappner, President, Bank Street, Leader and Champion for
Joan Baum, Ph.D.
Augusta (“Gussie”) Souza Kappner, the president of Bank Street
College of Education, could well represent at least two celebratory
months—February, Black History Month, and March, Women’s History
Month. An education dynamo who became the first African-American
female college president in the history of The City University
of New York, she is one of the most articulate and admired figures
in graduate education today. And, one might add, one of the most
beloved. In addition to what is usually said about her intelligence,
expertise, dedication, she has an engaging sense of humor and
projects a sense of easy accessibility. She also manifests an
enthusiastic loyalty to her institution and to the mission of
professional development—pretty remarkable in an age of growing
cynicism and continuing budget cuts. Although she has been at
the helm of Bank Street for the last eight years, Dr. Kappner
has lost none of the drive or good will that have marked her tenure
there, and elsewhere.
Unlike many educators, Gussie Kappner has had an unusually rich
and diverse professional life, including being the Assistant Secretary
for Vocational and Adult Education for the U.S. Department of
Education, where she led the nation’s adult literacy programs;
serving as Acting President of The City College of New York (1992-93);
heading up the CUNY’s Borough of Manhattan Community College,
the largest in the system (1986-92); and maintaining officer and
active member status in a host of national councils, commissions,
and agencies devoted to education and ensuring lifelong learning,
a Sisyphean chore, these days, given reductions in student aid,
charitable giving, and federal grants. Despite all the frustrations,
President Kappner thinks that Bank Street is still uniquely positioned
to ensure “the very best” graduate education for teachers and
administrators. “Bank Street is one of a kind, intergenerational
and progressive,” she points out. A graduate school with an elementary
school and pre-kindergarten on its premises, Bank Street doesn’t
just talk about what works, it demonstrates, and invites any and
all to look in on how it goes about its pedagogical business.
“Educational fads come and go,” she adds. Bank Street ideas prevail.
Her own life is a testament to what it means to overcome and prevail.
A graduate of Barnard College, Augusta Kappner went on to get
a Master’s in Social Work from Hunter and a doctorate in social
welfare policy from Columbia University—not bad for a poor youngster
growing up in a Jamaican household in the South Bronx who had
to look after a dependent mother as she also faced obstacles making
it in a city hardly blind to race or gender. Her awards are stellar
as they are legion, among them the Columbia Medal for Excellence
and the Barnard Medal of Distinction (1988); the Distinguished
Alumna Award from Barnard in 1996; the Foundation for Child Development’s
Centennial Award in 2000; the Women’s City Club Civic Spirit Award
the same year; and recently the Morris T. Keeton Award for excellence
from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning. The constants
in the record reflect priorities: an activist sense of education
and a belief that education is essential for children and teachers
in breaking down societal barriers and enhancing potential, personally
and professionally. Gussie Kappner is unapologetically passionate
about the upcoming Supreme Court Michigan case on affirmative
action and cites its potential impact—as fact and symbol—on the
nation’s ability to develop a diverse cadre of leaders in all
fields. No need to ask what side she’s on.
What does she think of Chancellor Klein’s shake up of the city’s
education system? She’s “optimistic,” she says, and feels that
in the long run the changes being wrought will be extremely helpful.
“He’s moving fast,” but then again, he’s moving in “the right
direction on important topics such as universal pre-K, literacy
and school leadership.” In particular she cites the Chancellor’s
call for principals to be more deeply engaged in instructional
leadership, leaving much of the administrative business to others.
Bank Street, of course, has had a long and well regarded Principals’
Institute, which includes mentoring /internships, partnerships
with the business community and creative design projects for students
who detail the kind of schools they’d like to lead. Of course,
she hopes that Bank Street will have the opportunity to participate
in the city’s developing plans. Meanwhile, there is much that
is new at the college to keep her busy.
Bank Street now has a two-story addition for more classrooms and
has augmented its after school programs with high schools in New
York City. A recently awarded five-year grant from the Carnegie
Corporation—only four were given out in the nation—will allow
the college to document what goes into the building of a national
model of teacher excellence and create a cycle of continuous improvement
for teacher preparation at Bank Street. And then there are the
expanding partnerships—continuing exchange with the Stevens Institute
of Technology and a new affiliation with the American Museum of
Natural History, enabling Bank Street to construct rigorous “project
based” content courses in the sciences that are specifically geared
for K-12 classroom use. A challenging time for education? No doubt,
but bank on it that Gussie Kappner will make sure that Bank Street
continues to help lead the way.#
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