New York City
March 2003

Augusta Souza Kappner, President, Bank Street, Leader and Champion for Children Everywhere
By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

Dr. 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.#

City: State:

Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email:
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2003.