//Leading with a Purpose

Leading with a Purpose

David Glasner, the new superintendent of Shaker Schools, was raised to make a difference.

By Scott Stephens

Shaker Schools superintendent David Glasner

The big bus rolled to a stop and the high school students began to gather their hats, sunscreen, and water bottles. They had left the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics well before dawn to join celebrities and lawmakers at a massive rally on the National Mall urging the George W. Bush administration and Congress to help end the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region. On this warm spring morning in 2006, they were ready to march toward the Capitol and into history.

Sandy Price, a secretary at the school, wasn’t supposed to go on the trip. She asked David Glasner, a young social studies teacher whom she knew, if she could tag along. Glasner taught a world history class that included the Holocaust and the genocide in Darfur. He shrugged. Sure, he told her. Come along. It seemed to be important to her. Now, as the students were preparing to disembark, Price shot to the front of the bus and grabbed the microphone.

“When I was younger, I saw Martin Luther King Jr. here,” Price told the students. “It’s like getting a tattoo. It’s an experience that will be with you forever. You will never forget this.”

David Glasner did not forget. The 41-year-old educator, who became the new superintendent of the Shaker Heights City School District this summer, still gets choked up when he recalls that spring trip to Washington and Sandy Price’s words. Some of the kids on the bus that day went on to become teachers, or to pursue careers in social justice.

To Glasner, the experience represents a powerful example of the difference education can make in the lives of young people. “Those students learned that ‘I have a voice, and I’m using it,’” he says. “They learned that they have the power to change history. I realized I had the opportunity to help students become citizens who can improve their communities, their country, and their world.”

Making a difference was a concept that came early in life to Glasner, who grew up in Chevy Chase, Maryland, an immaculate, tree-lined suburb just north of Washington, D.C. He and his twin brother, Ariel, were the oldest children of Sol, an attorney, and Nina, a social worker who worked with visually impaired children in the Prince George’s County (Maryland) schools. The twin boys were joined a few years later by a sister, Tamar.

Ariel followed in his father’s footsteps and became a lawyer. But early on, David seemed destined to follow the path of his mother and paternal grandmother, an elementary school teacher in New York City and one of his first role models in the field of education.

“I loved school,” he says. “As early as the seventh grade someone asked me what I wanted to do and I knew the answer. Even my family members who are not educators instilled in me a sense that we are here to make a difference. We had members of our family who survived the Holocaust. I grew up believing that we have to make sure nothing like that ever happens again.”

Assuming Leadership

David Glasner speaking with a student at Shaker High

Glasner’s passion for education took him to the University of Pennsylvania and then to New York City, where he received a master’s degree from the storied Teachers College at Columbia University, before getting a teaching job at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics.

He loved the classroom, but it didn’t take long before Glasner began assuming leadership roles. In 2008, he became an assistant principal at the Urban Assembly Academy of Government and Law, which was housed in the same Lower East Side school building from which his grandmother had graduated high school in the 1930s.

At Urban Assembly, he was charged with supervising the four-year-old school’s curriculum and instruction. The following year he became principal. In his five years at the helm, he raised test scores and the graduation rate significantly and took the school from a “C” to an “A” on the New York City Progress Report. None of that surprised Dr. Margaret Smith Crocco, a professor at Teachers College when Glasner was a student there. Early on she recognized the young man’s leadership potential.

“When he told me that he was interested in pursuing certification to become a principal at a public high school in New York City, I remember thinking what a gift he would be to the administrative profession,” she wrote in a letter of recommendation when Glasner was applying to get into a doctoral program at Cleveland State University. “His intellectual acumen, along with his interpersonal and organizational skills, would make him an excellent leader. His accomplishments are truly impressive…I am not surprised because I believe he has extraordinary capacity and potential as a leader.”

While Crocco saw a star administrator in the making, Elana Hoenig saw something else. At the party of a mutual friend, she spotted Glasner across the room and asked who he was.

“He’s got a girlfriend,” she was told. “But he’s also got a twin brother.” Hoenig and Ariel Glasner ended up attending a concert together and dating for a few weeks before going their separate ways. A few years later, David – no longer spoken for – got tickets to see another concert by the same band and asked Hoenig to go. In 2011, the couple married, eventually settling in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn.

As they began a young family, the couple began thinking about leaving New York. Hoenig grew up in South Euclid, and the idea of having an extended family to help with the children was attractive. When an opening occurred for principal at Shaker Heights Middle School, Glasner was interested. The District boasted a robust International Baccalaureate program, and Glasner himself had earned an IB Diploma in high school. In addition to a long history of academic excellence, the District had a reputation for aggressively addressing issues such as integration, social justice, and equity—ensuring that all students, regardless of race, family income, or disability, receive the supports and services they need to succeed.

“Shaker is unique in the sense that it is positioned to tackle some of the things that many districts struggle with,” he says.

David Glasner and family

The Glasners settled in the Mercer neighborhood, where they have made a home with their three young children: Eldad, 6, Noah, 5, and Hannah, 2. Unlike Brooklyn, there’s space in the yard to play baseball with the kids, and Glasner, who once ran the New York Marathon, can jog or ride his bike on tree-lined streets past tranquil lakes. Elana teaches middle school math at Fuchs Mizrachi, a Jewish day school on Shaker Boulevard.

Glasner’s devotion to family and faith are almost interchangeable. Raised in a conservative synagogue, Glasner is a founding executive committee member of the Cleveland Partnership Minyan, a progressive orthodox minyan that meets monthly at Fairmount Temple in Beachwood. Rabbi Joshua L. Caruso says Glasner was the one who reached out to his temple to form the partnership. He says Glasner has helped forge connections with the temple’s weekly Library Minyan, and both minyans share in food and drink festivities after services.

“David has been a first-class ‘mensch’ in every interaction,” says Caruso, who had a son graduate from Shaker Heights High School and a daughter there this year. “What has been really beautiful is that a Reform synagogue and an Orthodox minyan can share a space out of mutual regard for respective practices. Through my interactions with David he has demonstrated what mutual cooperation and respect can look like even when there may be differences in outlook and practice. Everyone can fit underneath the same tent.”

Getting Results

At the Middle School, Glasner again got results, dramatically closing the school’s achievement gap, implementing a progressive “restorative practices” discipline program, and taking key roles in numerous District-wide initiatives. After four successful years, he was promoted to the position of executive director of Curriculum and Instruction.

But before the paint dried in his new office, Glasner’s role in the District took a couple of unexpected turns. When fire struck Fernway Elementary School, Glasner led the effort to successfully relocate more than 300 students and their teachers into other District classrooms. A few months later, he was asked to step in as interim principal at the High School, where personnel and morale issues had created a leadership void. In both cases, Glasner calmed the roiled waters and added to his growing legion of supporters. In his spare time, he received his Ph.D. in Urban Education from Cleveland State University.

David Glasner clapping with students in hallway at Shaker Hight

“David is an extraordinarily good listener, and carefully weighs information and multiple perspectives when they are presented,” says Dr. John Morris, a High School teacher and president of the Shaker Heights Teachers’ Association. “I believe we are witnessing the beginning of our next great legacy administrator for Shaker Heights City Schools.”

Dr. Timeka Rashid, who served as co-president of the high school Parent Teacher Organization during the 2018-2019 school year, has worked with Glasner for nearly three years, beginning at the Middle School. Rashid says she is looking forward to Glasner’s tenure as superintendent.

“I was impressed by his genuine interest in learning and the fact that he was reflecting and seeking advice from us as parent leaders,” Rashid says. “He was patient, thoughtful, and willing to act as a thoughtful sounding board for new ideas and concepts.”

For his part, Glasner seems unfazed by the high expectations placed on him. He spent much of the spring methodically meeting with administrators, teachers, parents, and community stakeholders, listening and learning. He says his short-term goal is ensuring the District is 100 percent ready for the upcoming school year. Longer term, issues such as providing equitable opportunities for all students and dealing with the District’s aging buildings and infrastructure, rank among his biggest challenges.

But first, he paused last month to watch the students he started with at Shaker Heights Middle School in 2014 graduate from high school.

“That’s what makes this work so exciting,” he says. “It’s great to see the fruits of your labor, to see where they came from and where they are going.”

Scott Stephens is Executive Director of Communications and Public Relations for the Shaker Heights City School District.
Originally published in Shaker Life, Summer 2019