Making History with a Women-Powered “Dream Team”

For the first time in seven years, the Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School is searching for a new director to lead the K-8 independent school.

Director Jeff Suzik announced in February that he will step down on June 30, 2021 to begin his new position as director of Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.

Beginning on July 1, 2021, the Falk School will be led by two interim co-directors: Jill Sarada, assistant director of elementary learning, and Joanna Newlin, assistant director of middle school learning. Additionally, Samantha Utley, the school’s coordinator of equity, inclusion, and justice, will take on the interim role of assistant director for student and family engagement.

The trio will make history. Before them, no woman has served as director in Falk’s history.

“A place like Falk is grounded in innovative teaching, learning, and leading, and it is important that this innovation includes the work and brilliance of girls and women,” says Valerie Kinloch, the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the Pitt School of Education and the chair of the Falk School board. “This will be the first time in the history of Falk that we have women leading as directors. And not just one but three women at the school’s leadership helm.”

Established in 1931, Falk is a tuition-based, campus laboratory school affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. Falk partners with Pitt Education on student-teaching placements for graduate students, on research grants in teaching and learning, and on student and staff mentoring initiatives.

Conducting a National Search

According to Kinloch, a national search will be conducted to hire the next director of the Falk School. The process will begin in summer 2021 and is expected to be completed before the end of the upcoming academic year, if not before.

To assist with the search, Dean Kinloch has formed a search committee that is representative of members of both the Falk and Pitt Education communities. The search committee will partner with an outside search firm that specializes in leadership recruitment for K-12 independent schools and higher education.

“The qualities and dispositions that are most important for the new director to have will be determined based on various conversations, listening sessions, and gatherings that are hosted by the search committee and firm,” says Kinloch. “We already know that it is important, however, for the next director to be a strong leader in independent schools, to be innovative, to be an effective listener, and to be a thought partner with members of the Falk community, including students, staff, families, and alumni as well as with the School of Education.”

Leading the School Forward

As Falk searches for its next director, Sarada, Newlin, and Utley will lead the school forward.

Sarada has worked at Falk for 26 years, beginning long ago as a student teacher. As co-director, she will add to her existing responsibilities of overseeing the academic program for grades kindergarten through five by taking on new school-wide responsibilities for finance, enrollment management, and facilities.

“I am excited to continue this path knowing it will bring surprises, things we cannot imagine, but whatever the future brings, we will embrace it as a community of learners,” says Sarada.

In considering the future direction of Falk, Newlin intends to build on three hallmarks of the school: innovation, flexibility, and creative vision. Being a co-director will entrust her with new responsibilities—including overseeing the school’s human resources, technology, and advancement plans—which she will do while continuing to supervise Falk’s middle school program.

“Figuring out how to provide the best structure and supports for teachers who in turn can help students grow into thoughtful, creative, and caring humans is what gets me out of bed every day,” says Newlin, a former Montessori-method elementary school teacher.

Utley began her position in fall 2020 as Falk’s first coordinator of equity, inclusion, and justice. In her new role as an assistant director, she will expand her interactions across student services. Among her goals is implementing restorative practices in discipline and student engagement.

“With Falk, I value the commitment to celebrating student individuality, designing lessons and opportunities that center student growth, and the facilitation of the 21 wishes that guide Falk’s mission to serve our students in both an innovative and progressive atmosphere,” says Utley.

Suzik says his departure from Falk will be extremely bittersweet. “The school,” he says, “lets kids and adults be their fullest, most complete, and honest selves.” He is comforted in knowing that the transition will be managed by what he calls a “dream team” of educators in Sarada, Newlin, and Utley.

“I often look to the iconic words of Fred Rogers (who himself was a Falk parent back in the day) at times like these,” says Suzik. “He said that when we think we are at the end of something, we are really at the beginning of something else, and that’s a powerful thing to think about as the next chapter of Falk’s history is drafted.”

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