When Cathy Lewis Long picks up her children after school at the Fanny Edel Falk Laboratory School, she can count on seeing a familiar face.
There, amid the hustle and bustle of afternoon dismissal, stands Jeff Suzik, the school’s director. Rain or shine, he is there to greet parents and say goodbye to his students, wishing everyone well until the next school day.
Many school directors would not make time for this activity. However, Suzik considers it to be integral to his daily routine.
“Whether he is greeting a kindergartener at the door or dealing with shifts in school logistics during the pandemic, it is with a lot of grace and intention,” says Lewis Long, the parent of a fifth- and sixth-grader at the school. “I know when I go pick up my kids, he’ll be at the afternoon bus line.”
Since 2014, Suzik has served as director of the Falk School. Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh School of Education, the Falk School is a progressive, experimental school serving about 425 students in grades K-8. The school is located on the hill overlooking the Pitt campus.
Lewis Long is among the many people who will soon miss Suzik’s leadership at the school.
Suzik has announced that, effective June 30, he will resign from his position at the school. He has accepted a new position that he describes as “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” as the director of Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
“Falk is such an extraordinary place,” says Suzik. “ I’ve come to love and admire it so much for the work that it has done, for close to 90 years, for the children and families that it serves. I will forever cherish my time with and in the Falk community. It will always hold a very special space in my heart.”
Founded in 1904, Cranbrook Schools offers a college-preparatory environment through multiple schools in grades PreK-12. The schools are part of the larger Cranbrook Educational Community, which comprises an art academy that grants Master of Fine Arts degrees, a contemporary art museum, numerous historical homes and ornamental gardens, Detroit’s premier science institute, and a center for collections and research.
The schools’ bucolic campus is designated as a National Historic Landmark, having been designed in the 1920s and 30s by Eliel Saarinen, the father of architect Eero Saarinen, who grew up at Cranbrook and went on to design the St. Louis Gateway Arch, among other masterworks.
Committed to Innovation, Equity, and Justice
During Suzik’s tenure, the Falk school has grown its enrollment, developed new academic opportunities for students, and made a firm commitment to embedding social justice work into all aspects of the school.
Jill Sarada, the Falk School’s assistant director of elementary grades learning, credits Suzik for his unceasing devotion to the school’s progressive principles.
“Jeff has supported so many different little seeds of ideas and helped make them grow. And some have really blossomed into these amazing programs that are cutting-edge,” says Sarada.
Two examples are the creation of the Falk School’s WonderLab and a new leadership position in equity, inclusion, and justice..
The WonderLab is a maker space where students in all grade levels can envision, design, and build their own creations. Suzik and colleagues led a successful crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the construction of the WonderLab. Then, they worked to integrate the WonderLab across the curriculum.
Suzik also oversaw the hiring for the school’s first-ever Coordinator of Equity, Inclusion, and Justice. Samantha Utley was hired for the position in August and is charged with influencing every aspect of the school, from classroom instruction and admissions practices to the school’s operations.
“Jeff’s passion for social justice, along with his interest in progressivism, has fueled our growth as a school that thinks very deeply about how those issues touch on every aspect of our community,” says Sarada.
Laura Roop, an assistant professor of practice at the Pitt School of Education, serves on the Falk School board. She credits Suzik for creating the conditions where faculty, staff, and students could prosper, even amid the tumultuous times of a pandemic and uprisings over racial injustice.
“He is meticulously detail-oriented but also has a sense of joy and play, and loves to `geek out’ on history, particularly the history of progressive education,” says Roop. “He is deeply kind and ethical, and he cares about and remembers details about all the people he engages with, from specific children and their families to co-workers to community members and faculty colleagues.”
Looking Ahead to the Transition
Suzik will continue serving as director of the Falk School through June 30.
In the meantime, the school will work to ensure a smooth transition in leadership, according to school officials.
Valerie Kinloch, the Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the Pitt School of Education, serves as chair of the Falk School board. She said that “being a witness to his leadership of Falk School and to his generous spirit makes his departure bittersweet.”
“Jeff is not only invested in progressive education and its potential for imaginative teaching and learning, but he is also fully committed to students, staff, and families,” says Kinloch. “While I will miss having him here, I am thrilled by the wonderful work that lies ahead for him. During the upcoming days, weeks, and months ahead, I will be in communication with members of the Falk community to ensure a smooth transition and to begin planning next steps insofar as upcoming leadership changes. For now, congratulations to Jeff!”
Prior to joining the Falk School, Suzik worked as head of school for the Mounds Park Academy in St. Paul, Minnesota. Before that, he held leadership positions at private schools in St. Louis, Missouri and Pittsburgh.
Suzik earned his PhD in history from Carnegie Mellon University and first worked as a history and social studies teacher at the Shady Side Academy in Pittsburgh.
Now, Suzik is poised to begin his next adventure. A native of Michigan, Suzik will be returning to his home state for his new job at Cranbrook Schools.
“This move to Cranbrook Schools will provide me with unparalleled opportunities for personal and professional growth and challenge,” says Suzik. “It is, in many respects, a community of learners kindred to Falk’s, and I know that that bodes well for the connections and contributions I hope to make in my time there. That said, I will always appreciate and never forget the incredible bonds I’ve made here at our school and in the School of Education more broadly.”
“I am really going to miss our little gray building on top of the hill,” he added.
Lewis Long, the parent of two children enrolled in the Falk School, says she will greatly miss Suzik’s guiding presence at the school.
The day will soon come when she no longer sees him in front of the school for the afternoon dismissal. Yet, she knows that the Falk School will continue to be successful thanks to its strong foundation.
“As much as it is bittersweet to see him go, he’s been a steward of something much bigger than him. Any institution is larger and longer than any one leader. The Falk School will continue to be a progressive, forward-thinking institution for years to come,” reflects Lewis Long.