Teach For America Greater Philadelphia, 2004
Executive Director, Teach For America Greater Philadelphia
In a city where more than a third of children grapple with the realities of living below the federal poverty line and reading proficiency lags behind that of other US cities, Anna Shurak is working to pave the way for brighter opportunities for Philadelphia’s youth. As the city’s Executive Director of Teach For America (TFA), Shurak is dedicated to building a coalition of educators driven by equity and systems-level change.
With almost two decades of experience in the field, Shurak started her journey in education as a TFA corps member. After studying Political Science and Policy Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, the Wisconsin native moved to Philadelphia in 2004, where she was placed at Thomas FitzSimons High School in North Philly.
“I joined the corps because I wanted to work on education policy, but I didn’t want to do policy until I taught,” Shurak says. She quickly recognized that policy, while crucial for wide-scale change, isn’t always enough.
“We need great policies that support students, schools, leaders and communities that are most impacted by a lack of opportunity for education, and also, we need people there—in schools, in systems, and in communities leading the work.”
While teaching in the School District of Philadelphia, Shurak met mentors like Dr. Linda Cliatt-Wayman, a renowned educator and then-principal of Thomas FitzSimons High School who showed her that transformation within the school system was possible.
“Ms. Wayman really invested in us through professional development, through mentorship, through accountability and always prioritizing students in their experience,” she says.
Shurak highlighted a pivotal moment in her career at Rhodes High School, where, under Cliatt-Wayman’s leadership, the institution stood out as one of the only comprehensive high schools that achieved adequate yearly progress in the city of Philadelphia.
“Through witnessing and being part of that change, I basically saw a playbook for how it can be done,” Shurak says.
After a decade within the School District of Philadelphia, ascending from teacher to principal, Shurak’s commitment to systemic reform led her to Camden, New Jersey, where she assumed the role of chief school support officer for Camden’s high schools. Honoring the values that she learned as a TFA corps member in Philadelphia, Shurak championed exceptional teaching practices and support for students.
“We saw similar opportunities and change in the academics and social-emotional outcomes for students in Camden,” she says. “All of that sort of culminates in how I anchor our team in Philly.”
Today, Shurak remains steadfast in her commitment to improving educational outcomes for Philadelphia’s students. As executive director of TFA of Greater Philadelphia, she works to attract like-minded educators to the city and forge partnerships with nonprofits working towards the same goal.
One of the biggest challenges TFA and others aim to tackle in Philly is reading proficiency. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, only 15 percent of the city’s fourth graders performed at or above a proficient reading level in 2022. Shurak is dedicated to collaborating with other organizations, leaders, and communities to address and improve future statistics like these. In particular, TFA is focusing on city council districts that contain students with the most disenfranchised backgrounds.
“There is poverty in our city, and the majority of it is because of systemic racism and policies within our city and region that have been put in place and not disrupted for years, hundreds of years, in a way that disadvantages certain students, communities, and areas of our city that we haven’t fully addressed,” says Shurak. “Addressing those inequities and disrupting those systems will require lots of people, organizations, and communities working together—and it must be led by those most directly impacted.”
According to Shurak, TFA not only attracts this talent, but builds relationships in communities that last—while only one in five TFA corps members had plans to teach before applying to TFA, she says that four out of five alumni now work in education or in careers serving low-income communities. “Our core capabilities and single greatest contribution as an organization is leadership…sourcing talent, matching talent, and developing talent to address the challenges and inequities in education is what we do.”
“Having that great of a block of folks working towards change, especially folks that didn’t necessarily believe that they would be working in low-income communities long-term truly illustrates TFA as a catalyst for bringing excellent talent to our region,” she says. “No matter the circumstances of a school, or a system, I do fundamentally believe that with the right coalition of people in support, that we can achieve phenomenal outcomes for our kids.”This is a paid partnership between Teach for America and Philadelphia Magazine