“I am so proud of them”: Students Ace Algebra Regents Exam

This summer, for the first time since the Partnership began, eighth graders in our New York schools took the Algebra 1 Regents Exam—and 67 young mathematicians passed the test, which means they earned high school credit for math they did in middle school. Getting them there was a three-year project that our curriculum team and fearless teachers persisted with, even as the pandemic caused widespread learning disruptions.

As a result, while the NWEA estimates that 2022 eighth-graders may need as much as five years to make up for the learning delays of the pandemic, Partnership students continued to make progress. And mastering Algebra 1 before high school means students can continue progressing—into higher-level math and science classes that are the gateway to STEM careers.

Algebra is the single most failed course in high school and community college and a leading cause of the high community college dropout rate. It is a gatekeeper for so many students—which makes our students’ mastery of it in eighth grade all the more impactful.

“They did it! We did it, together.”

 

Coral Elias, who has taught middle school math at Sacred Heart School for nine years, had the highest passing rate in our network. As Vice President of Academics Maggie Johnson explains, “Coral is a genuine master of her content. She knows precisely what her students need to take away at the end of the day and crafts each lesson with so much intentionality to get there. She makes it look effortless, but we know the systematic planning she does to map each lesson so every single student in her room is with her. To watch her persist with a struggling student, nimbly feeding the information they need to “get it” without taking away the challenge—and never doubting that they can answer the questions she’s chosen for them—is a thing of beauty.”

Here’s what Coral has to say about the students’ Algebra 1 Regents results:

I am so proud of them. They were so worried, but at the same time they were excited to take the exam. And look: They did it! We did it, together.

The eighth graders finished classes before everyone else weeks before the exam, but I created two Regents prep sessions every day, and they came, even when they weren’t required to.

I was telling one of the students who tried and did not pass, don’t worry; you’ll have a chance to take it again next year. So next year will be like a review, and students will have an opportunity to take the test again.

Middle schoolers are not easy, but they are eager to follow your directions if you give them specific steps. My style from day one is to follow a routine. This year in particular when the math started to get harder, I was on top of our routine every day, and that was so important.

My personal routine is important too. My attendance is almost perfect. I learned from my mom, who was a teacher and principal in Puerto Rico, that if you are absent one day, your students aren’t going to learn something they need to learn. So unless I’m sick, I’m there, and that’s important.

Algebra is my favorite subject and has been since I was in middle school. The polynomials—I love it! When I was in college, I was doing accounting, not teaching. A professor saw my ability to help another student learn to do the math, and she encouraged me to become a teacher.

I love Sacred Heart. I have been here for nine years.  I love every morning to pray together with the students, to present the day to God. This is not a big school; we are a family. Abi Akano, our principal—I don’t have the words to describe her: She is strict but really human, and the support I have from her is amazing.

When she called me to share how the students did on the Regents exam, I was so happy.

And so are we.

Partnership Schools Chooses a New Assistant Superintendent—and He Chooses Cleveland

This month, Aaron Dukes is moving to Cleveland. While his new role as Assistant Superintendent for School Support means he will work with all eleven Partnership Schools in both cities, he’s excited to be doing so from Cleveland.

“Progress is happening because of people from the city are leading it themselves, and it’s nice to become a part of a community like that. There’s also something very authentic about Cleveland—an attitude of ‘we want to grow and be better, but our identity is who we are.’”

One of the newest Partnership Schools—Metro Catholic—welcomes Aaron.

Aaron says he is finding the same that mix authenticity and ambition at the four Partnership Schools he’ll support in Cleveland. And while he’s new to that city, he is not new to the Partnership; he served as principal of St. Mark the Evangelist in Harlem from 2015-2018, when he left to take on a charter school leadership role in Washington, D.C.

“I am the guy who is walking behind and beside you, cheering, coaching, and thought partnering.”

 

What does it mean to be Assistant Superintendent for School Support? “I’m the principal coach,” Aaron explains. For school leaders, “I am the guy who is walking behind and beside you, cheering, coaching, and thought partnering.” That’s a role shares a lot with his previous work as an educator. “Regardless of the position, I am a teacher—I am teaching something to somebody, whether that’s students or school leaders.”

Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee shares that “We are thrilled to have Aaron back with us in this new role. He doesn’t just understand the way we do things—our curriculum, for example. Aaron sets a high bar for himself and everyone around him when it comes to academic excellence, and he places equal importance on building community.”

She goes on to explain, “That mix of rigor and relationships is the essence of the Partnership’s approach. We’ve never handed principals a binder and said ‘do this’; as we expand, Aaron’s role ensures that we continue to ground our schools’ progress in the meaningful relationships that have helped our principals unlock their schools’ potential since the Partnership began.”

“Are you the President?” Cleveland Partnership students asked Aaron when he visited.

The stakes are high, Aaron is quick to point out—and that’s what motivates him. “It’s essential that our students and our schools succeed.” And he sees his position as a clear signal that the values that drew him to the Partnership when he led St. Mark’s are still front-and-center as the network grows. “I’m noticing that there is a very firm attempt to support all eleven schools the same way that the network did with the original six. And it’s thrilling to see teachers I knew when I was at St. Mark’s now leading schools—people like Chinique Pressley (now principal at St. Mark’s), Trista Rivera (now principal at Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary) and Jessica Aybar (now executive principal at St. Athanasisus). That growth and continuity prove that what we are doing works, for and with the right people.”

An Alabama native who began his career as an educator teaching at a junior high school in Montgomery, Aaron discovered early on that he has a particular love for middle school students—“they are fun, and they are capable of awe at what they are learning.” Raised Baptist, he found at St. Mark’s a form of schooling that resonates with his faith: “There is something special about schools that want students to grow up to be good people and to form community as well as academic success. To lead with my values, my faith, and to have a community embrace me for that was fantastic.”

As he takes on a new leadership role, he is determined to bring the same sense of himself to all eleven Partnership Schools that he brought to St. Mark’s a few years back. “It was my joy to be embraced by that community because I brought very clear leadership. I wasn’t just seen as the Black man in the room or the Black man in charge of school culture, but the one bringing a bar of excellence that is the same regardless of race.”

“The challenge of leadership is juggling all the tenets that make a good school community,” he explains. And we’re thrilled that he’s bringing both zeal and experience to Cleveland as he supports all our principals in meeting that challenge.

Meet the Newest Partnership Schools

In just a few days, Metro Catholic and St. Francis schools in Cleveland join the Partnership Schools. We thought we’d take a moment to introduce our new additions.

Metro Catholic

Metro Catholic’s students say the Sign of the Cross together each morning—and they alternate between four of the different languages their families speak: Swahili, Vietnamese, Spanish, and English. It is just one of the many ways the school embraces a rich range of immigrant families. That welcome and diversity are rooted in a school community that includes families with long connections to the school and each other.

Daisy Rivera, a staff member who anchors the main office, is a great example. “My kids went here, and my grandkids. I have been here 34 years.” Indeed, she began working at the school just as it came into existence as the brainchild of Metro’s three “Founding Mothers”—Sr. Grace Corbett, Sr. Regina Davala, and Sr. Virginia Reesing, all Sisters of Notre Dame and principals of parish elementary schools on Cleveland’s Near West Side. Convinced they could accomplish more together, they set about creating a single school from St. Boniface, St. Michael, and St. Stephen schools. In an innovative arrangement, Metro Catholic continues to function in three buildings on two campuses.

“Everyone thought we were going to close after five years,” teacher Amy Murray explains. “And here we are, 34 years later.” Amy and Daisy’s colleague Mary Lou Toler explains the combination that makes the school so special: “Faith and diversity and culture and family.”

All three long-time Metro educators are quick to give credit where it’s due: “I am here because of the nuns,” Daisy explains. “They are always here for you and here for the kids. For example, Sr. Linda doesn’t have to make ESL so much fun, but she goes above and beyond and creates community.”

Amy explains that “Catholic values and Sr. Anne Maline” drew her to Metro. “Being able to teach kids about God is the core of my being…It is an amazing place to work; my second family.” And Daisy uses exactly the same word to explain how the school functions in three buildings: “We work as a family.”

Amy and Mary Lou share that they are most excited about the new curriculum that comes with becoming part of the Partnership. “I want to see our students face challenging curriculum and see that they CAN DO TOUGH THINGS!” Mary Lou explains.

St. Francis

St. Francis principal Carrie Grace has the same strong feelings about her school community. “We are very tight-knit,” she explains. “We work really well together to make sure our students are successful. And no matter how much work there is to do, no matter how stressed I am, I love being here with these people and feeding off their energy.”

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb—a Catholic school graduate—with St. Francis Principal Carrie Grace.

Like founding Partnership school Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem, St. Francis’s educational ministry has outlasted the parish, which closed in 2009. And like Metro Catholic, its resilience and character can be traced directly to the Sisters of Notre Dame.

“I love that we still have sisters who are very much rooted in the community,” Carrie explains. “The first-grade aide, Sister PJ, has been here for almost thirty years. Sr. Karen, who was principal for over 25 years, is still here, and so is Sister Renee, who taught in middle school—” all have infused St. Francis with their spirit.

Carrie explains what she considers the appeal of the Sisters of Notre Dame: “They are welcoming and accepting of differences. It makes them really likable.” Carrie went to Catholic schools her whole life and found such a sense of warmth at a St. Francis school Mass that it inspired her to become part of the team there. “It gave me an unforgettable feeling of being connected and loved—a feeling I had not experienced anywhere else. This community is just so welcoming, so special.”

Along with her new colleagues at Metro Catholic, she’s looking forward to the curriculum the school will now have as part of the Partnership. She’s also looking forward to how the Partnership’s network approach to operations will help her spend more time in classrooms, supporting teachers.

 

One root belief we talk about often around the Partnership is that we are “better together.” As we get to know our new colleagues from Metro Catholic and St. Francis, we look forward to finding out new ways in which that is true.

“Stay Where You Are and Make History”: The Bond Between a First-Year Teacher and a 42-Year Veteran

Janice Selby started teaching at St. Charles Borromeo in Harlem before many of her coworkers were born. In fact, she taught three current colleagues when they were in fourth grade. As if that’s not remarkable enough, she’s been teaching fourth grade for 39 of her 42 years in the same school.

The reasons why Ms. Selby stayed—and her impact—embody the unique power that schools like St. Charles can have for both students and neighborhoods because they are deeply anchored in faith and community.

Now, it’s worth noting that 42 years in one school wasn’t Ms. Selby’s original plan. Three years, she thought; “I planned to stay at St. Charles for three years.”

She explains, “I graduated from college in 1979. The BOE [now the New York City Department of Education] wasn’t hiring that year, so like a lot of my friends, I headed to a Catholic school.”

She’s not Catholic. A proud member of Convent Avenue Baptist, a half a mile from St. Charles, she nevertheless found something happening at the school that kept her coming back. “I got a chance to strengthen my faith at work at St. Charles. After all,” she adds, “we all believe in the same Jesus.”

It was more than just the opportunity to pray that she found compelling. “St. Charles is a gem, a joy. Not every day is roses and sunshine, but there is always someone there to help you realize that it will be all right. And there were never any ‘haters’; there was always someone there to give you a pat on the back with your successes.

“We have been through thick and thin: births and deaths and weddings. When I talk to other friends who are teachers, they didn’t have that sense of community with their coworkers.”

According to Ms. Selby, that supportive environment extends to the families she has served for over four decades. “I lived in the neighborhood with children and parents. I would run into someone all the time in the laundromat or the grocery store, and that level of respect we had as members of the same community spilled out into the classrooms. I’ve never really had problems with respect.”

After 42 years, she says that it is time for her to retire. Ed Koch was mayor and Jimmy Carter President the last time St. Charles had a school year without Ms. Selby, so it is hard to imagine the school without her. And because cohesive communities are only as strong as the people who knit them together, it can be worrying to consider what will happen to St. Charles when she leaves.

A few minutes with Naje George, though, might make you feel better.

“I love, love, love teaching,” the PreK educator volunteers. And why did she become a teacher in the first place? “I always wanted to be like Ms. Selby,” who—sure enough—taught her in fourth grade.

Ms. George, who is Black, explains that “We had a lot of Black teachers growing up at St. Charles. But there is something about Ms. Selby that made me think, ‘Wow, I could really be here teaching like her, be my true self, and be a role model to kids.’”

Although Ms. George is a life-long member of the St. Charles community and a parishioner of the church, she didn’t start out working as an educator there. “I taught at a special needs school, taught downtown. And when I got to St. Charles, I thought, this is it–I’m here–I’m home.” She sees in the school the same thing Ms. Selby found in 1980: “there is a sense of community. Everyone is on deck to help.”

And while Ms. Selby might not be down the hall next year, she’ll still be helping Ms. George.

“When I’m struggling as a teacher, I think, what would Ms. Selby do? Take the time one-on-one to get to know the student, get to know what they truly need.” Ms. George elaborates: “You feel the love the minute you walk into Ms. Selby’s classroom. Your team, the administration–you also have to love your students. You’re not going to get a class where every kid and parent is nice, but it is a community, and you’ve got to love what you are doing.”

And, Ms. George adds, “I can see myself retiring from here. Although maybe not after a full 42 years…”

“Stability counts,” Ms. Selby explains. “I’ve had kids come back to see me in their caps and gowns from college. It’s worth it to seek kids graduate from high school and college, and to see your students come back to be teachers and principals.”

There are lots of stories this summer about teachers quitting or retiring early, like this one and this one. And as Ms. Selby herself acknowledges, young people tend not to stay in the same jobs the way they used to. But her advice to them is this:

“If it’s a rough year, hang in there. Just when you think things aren’t going to get any better, there is a student or a parent who is going to come back and tell you what you meant to them.

“You can see the fruits of your labor. Stay where you are and make history.”

Winifred Doris, former St. Charles Borromeo teacher.

Last year, we shared the story of a group of St. Charles alumni honoring their legendary second grade teacher, Winifred Doris, who passed away last year. In that story, we quoted one of the teachers who was influenced early in her career by Ms. Doris’s compassion, dedication to the St. Charles community, and high standards. That teacher, of course, was Janis Selby. So the history she is encouraging Naje George and others to make at their school is one she herself inherited.

In a time when so much seems fleeting, these three dedicated women, each in her own generation, decided—as Ms. Selby says—to “stay where you are and make history.” And by doing so, they have created community—and an impact that will live long after each of them.

Insights and Inspiration from the Partnership Class of 2022

The eighth graders who graduated from Partnership Schools in the last few weeks had their entire middle school experience impacted by the pandemic. In the midst of such a generation-defining moment, we found ourselves struck by the resilience and insights graduates shared, particularly about what their experiences have taught them to value.

In valedictorian and salutatorian speeches as well as class-wide remarks, students mentioned several themes often—and their thoughts on those themes give us reason for hope, not just for their future but for the generation they represent:

Rootedness

Whether students had attended their Partnership School for 11 years or transferred in, many expressed a sense that they can move forward because of a strong sense of rootedness in their school community.

Laila, Archbishop Lyke 

I will leave Archbishop Lyke School knowing I attended a great Catholic school that helped me and taught me to be a better person. For that, I am very thankful.

Laila will be attending Trinity High School in the fall. 

August, St. Mark the Evangelist

I came to Saint Mark the Evangelist School in fifth grade. This was a new environment for me and I had never been to a Catholic school. Like any new kid I was nervous to come to a new school…After a few minutes my new classmates started to speak to me and treated me with kindness.

Through my years at this school I have found some great friends. This school has made me feel safe and important. I’ll miss the small school environment where everyone knows one another.

August will be attending Cardinal Spellman High School in the fall.

Students celebrate after OLQA graduation.

Gratitude

While most graduation speeches include a few thank-yous, we were struck by these two heart-felt shout-outs:

Makai, St. Charles Borromeo

As an individual I have grown, but as a class we have grown together, because during our elementary years, some of our classmates had our teachers wishing for a new job. And since we’re on this topic, I’d like to give a special thanks to our elementary school teachers, because they endured multiple years of having to deal with us. Thank you Mrs. Banks, Ms. Selby, and Ms. Jackson for never giving up on us, even though we were a hot mess.

Makai will attend Avenues: The World School in the fall.

Julian, Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary

By February 2021, I had lost almost all my passion for school, and neither my mom nor I wanted that for me, so we looked into MCHR. I transferred there the next week and it got me back into the swing of things. I started going back in person, made new friends, and even consistently saw 100’s on my report cards. This was due to the loving community at this school.

I’d like to thank my classmates for welcoming me with open arms when I first came here. They’re the people that really make this school feel like another home.

Julian will attend Regis High School in the fall.

A moment of gratitude at St. Thomas Aquinas graduation.

Consistency

It’s hard to imagine a 14-year-old singing the praises of consistency before the pandemic, but that’s exactly what Julio spoke about in his valedictory address to the Immaculate Conception Class of 2022:

Consistency is something that I view as an essential pillar to greatness. That’s not to say we should not be ready to change when necessary but rather, to commit ourselves to what is important in our lives.

It has also been a thread that has connected our shared ICS experience. We have been consistently pushed. Consistently challenged. Consistently adapting. Consistency is something that, especially over the last few years, has been uprooted and, quite frankly, not very consistent at all. Yet, there was one thing we could always count on: Immaculate Conception.

We knew we’d always be welcomed and safe. We knew we’d always have a surprise ELA “Do Now” quiz, or that Julian would let out an exasperated “AWWWWWW” in class. Lucenny and Sharif would always be engaged in a fierce debate, Mr. Zinzi would probably be saying “Treat it like a variable.” and Mr. B would be reminding us to “Draw a line!” so we wouldn’t lose the place in our book (usually at a spot we did not want to stop reading!)

Counting on consistency has helped us through some major struggles along the way.

Julio will be attending Regis High School in the fall.

St. Charles Borromeo’s Class of 2022.

Service

Of all the Partnership core values—integrity, humility, hard work, and service—students tended to reflect on the impact of their own hard work the most. But many also reflected on service and reminded us how carefully kids watch the examples set by others.

Briana, St. Athanasius

My grandpa is always busy. He has many responsibilities and works hard every day of his life. But he would still help you, no matter what kind of day he had. He told me to be humble and serve others because that’s our job…he said, service is another word for love.

Sometimes, service includes a lot of sweat and tears. When you’re humble, you’re eager to help someone. And when you are honest, you can reach someone’s heart and help them emotionally. Service is the one core value that includes them all.

Briana will be attending Preston High School in the fall. 

Kamila, St. Athanasius

This one teacher in 6th grade helped me through all the work I missed during the pandemic. He gave me so much motivation to finish the handful of work I had missed during the pandemic. The surprising thing is that I am almost positive he has done this with every student who was failing in the class. At the beginning of the school year, I thought he was one of the strict teachers, but after this one act of kindness, my perspective changed completely. One or more acts of kindness can change someone’s view of you in seconds.

Students share a laugh after Archbishop Lyke’s ceremony.

Nervous Excitement

Finally, several students shared their thoughts on the high school experiences ahead. We admire the candor of these remarks from Jessica at Our Lady Queen of Angels:

While I am excited to create new bonds with others, I am also very scared, because the relationships I have built with my peers will always hold a special place in my heart and are irreplaceable. I am also scared because throughout all these years, from Kindergarten to eighth grade, OLQA has become a second home to me, and leaving a familiar place like this and having to adjust to something else is frightening. So even though we are all leaving and eagerly looking for new paths to take and marks to make, we should always remember where we are from, because for me, this school will always be my second home.

Jessica will be attending Marymount School in the fall.

Partnership Schools and Cristo Rey: Transforming Students Who Can Transform Communities

As elementary schools, we know that Partnership Schools are the first step on an educational journey. Our students need high schools that continue the same kind of whole-person education and maintain the momentum we work so hard to provide. That’s why we prize partner schools like Cristo Rey New York High School (CRNYHS) and St. Martin de Porres, Cleveland’s Cristo Rey school.

Cristo Rey is a national network of high schools that combine rigorous and nurturing Catholic education with a job-sharing program that gives students real-world work experience. The Cristo Rey schools in the cities we serve rank among our students’ most popular high school choices; in fact, almost 15 percent of CRNYHS’s students this year attended a Partnership School.

To understand fully the cumulative impact of a combined Partnership and Cristo Rey education, we turned to an expert: Kevin Montes. Kevin is corporate recruiter specializing in technology in Houston, Texas. But not so long ago, he was a student at the Partnership’s Sacred Heart School in the Bronx, and he went on to graduate from CRNYHS in 2014. He is the first in his family to work in the corporate world. He explains:

I am a strong advocate for educational equality because of my experiences in Catholic schools like Sacred Heart and Cristo Rey. Students who come from the backgrounds in which SHS and CRNYHS serve suffer from a lack of opportunity. Programs and schools like these work to level the playing field for students.

Kevin Montes at his Sacred Heart School graduation.

I’m a great example. Walking into Credit Suisse’s offices in Midtown for my first day of work at fourteen, I was terrified. I was shaking. Just the way people walked indicated that they were important—that the work they were doing was important. But my mentor gave me work to do, she told me that work was valuable, and she made sure that I was included in meetings.

Now, years later, my ability to network, command a presence during a work presentation/call, and represent myself and my employer well are all things I learned from my Cristo Rey Corporate Work Study Program (CWSP) experience, and they are all things that I attribute to my success.

In school, too, at both Sacred Heart and Cristo Rey, I was treated every day like what I did mattered. I transferred from a public school where it wasn’t always clear that all the students in each class were important to the teachers. But at Sacred Heart, I knew that my teachers cared about me—particularly Ms. Akano, who is now the principal at the school. The teachers I had at Cristo Rey reinforced that over and over. If you hear every day that you matter, that what you do matters, then you begin to believe it.

Kevin during his days at Cristo Rey-New York High School.

That’s also why, in 2019, I decided to return to Cristo Rey to work in the Corporate Work Study Program; I had a desire to give back to the community that had invested so much in me. Specifically, the ability to give students from my background an opportunity to navigate corporate spaces is something that pulled me back. I made sure to instill in my students the same confidence and assurance that was instilled in me. I made sure to constantly remind my students that they did in fact belong in these spaces.

It’s not just confidence and other workplace skills from Cristo Rey that I rely on every day now in my profession. The school’s teachers and leaders taught us to be professionals for others, and that is what I try to be, every day. The tech industry hasn’t always been the best at hiring and retaining people of color. As a recruiter, though, I get to deliver that message to people: you belong here. And I help to create a workplace environment where I don’t code switch, and I still belong.

Because of their attention and care for students in the classroom and the exposure of students to a corporate working environment, Sacred Heart and Cristo Rey provide resources that all students should have access to, especially students from marginalized backgrounds.

Two Additional Cleveland Schools to Join the Partnership This Summer

In a press release issued this morning, the Partnership and the Diocese of Cleveland announced that two long-serving Catholic schools in the heart of the city—Metro Catholic and St. Francis—will be joining the Partnership Schools network beginning this summer. The full text of the statement reads:

Partnership Schools expands in Cleveland, doubling the number of students it serves in the city. 

The Most Reverend Edward Malesic, bishop of Cleveland, announced this week that two long-serving Catholic elementary schools administered by the diocese—Metro Catholic in Detroit-Shoreway and St. Francis in St. Clair-Superior—will be joining the Partnership Schools network beginning this summer.

Partnership Schools is a private, nonprofit school management organization that supports urban Catholic schools. We ensure that they have the vision and resources needed to drive life-changing achievement results for students and long-term sustainability for the schools themselves.

This summer, Metro Catholic and St. Francis will join St. Thomas Aquinas and Archbishop Lyke, Cleveland schools that became part of the Partnership network in July 2020. Since the Partnership assumed management of them, enrollment at St. Thomas and Archbishop Lyke has risen almost forty percent, student achievement scores (as measured by the NWEA MAP) have increased, and both local and national donors have contributed and pledged over $7.9 million in support of this groundbreaking approach to running Catholic elementary schools in Cleveland.

“Metro Catholic and St. Francis schools in Cleveland join the Partnership from a position of strength—with dedicated supporters, stable enrollment in recent years, and the visionary guidance of the Notre Dame sisters,” Bishop Malesic says. “Becoming part of the Partnership enables them to grow even stronger.”

As a non-profit school management organization, the Partnership takes full responsibility for its schools’ finances, academics, and Catholic school culture, while the diocese retains ownership of the schools. The model enables schools to access more targeted support from the Partnership’s local and national educational leaders.

Expanding to include Metro Catholic and St. Francis more than doubles the number of students the network serves in Cleveland, from 450 to more than 1,100. It brings the total number of Partnership schools to eleven, including seven in New York, where the network began.

The expansion agreement stipulates that the Partnership must raise $3.6 million by this summer to cover next year’s operating costs for all four schools. As of mid-May, local and national donors have provided gifts and pledges of $3.1 million toward that target.

“Parents are taking a fresh look at educational options since COVID,” explains Christian Dallavis, the Partnership’s Regional Superintendent in Cleveland, “which gives us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to revitalize Catholic schools that are beacons of hope and have been among Cleveland’s greatest engines of social mobility for over a century.”

Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee adds, “At the Partnership, we believe we are better together. We leverage the strength of each of our school communities, and those individual strengths become a force multiplier when we work together as a network.”

Partnership Schools Mourns the Passing of Dick Schmeelk

When Bill Finneran was in the hospital in the days before his death, Dick Schmeelk came to visit him. Bill’s daughter Karen explains that when Dick left, “my dad turned to me and said, ‘that man is a gift.’”

We couldn’t agree more. This week, our Partnership Schools community is deeply saddened to learn of Dick’s passing.

Dick supported our students before Partnership Schools’ network even existed, when he got involved with the Inner-City Scholarship Fund in New York. Yet his generosity of spirit extended far beyond the financial support he provided and the advice he gave as we formed a new kind of Catholic school network. He gave us a powerful example of what partnerships can really mean, one that will inspire us for a long time to come.

Even though he described himself once as someone “without the gift of easy conversation with people I don’t know,” Dick formed friendships deep and strong enough to become partnerships in service of good—like his friendship with Bill Finneran. As Partnership Executive Director Jill Kafka explains, “as we were starting the Partnership, it was clear that Dick and Bill had the same instinct of wanting to help, and they were more powerful doing it as a twosome. They introduced us to so many people who have become supporters as well.”

The power of their friendship has continued to work in the service of the students they both cared about even after Bill passed away in 2020. Dick established a scholarship fund in honor of his friend, and it has raised over $2 million in just two years.

Our Partnership students are not the only ones who have benefited from Dick’s impulse to connect people and causes he cared about. For example, much of his success as an investment banker came from projects in Canada, and he established a long-running fellowship program designed to knit together that nation’s French- and English-speaking communities.

As the name of our organization implies, relationships—partnerships—are at the core of what we believe can help children and communities thrive. Partnerships like those among striving families, our schools, and advocates like Dick Schmeelk are crucial if our schools, children, and cities are to thrive.

There is so much that can isolate us these days—social and political differences, technology, the pandemic. Yet even into the last weeks of Dick Schmeelk’s life, he kept alive the connections he had formed and the good that they are still doing. May we all remain as connected and purposeful as Dick exemplified, through the end of our days.

 

Everything You Wondered About Why Some NYC Schools Are Teaching Reading Wrong, But Were Afraid to Ask

This winter, New York City’s new public schools chancellor David Banks began his tenure with a blunt attack on how most of the city’s schools teach reading. “They’re teaching it wrong.” And in his first speech as chancellor, he called out the city’s reading proficiency inequities as a scandal: “We are in a city with 65% of Black and brown children never reach proficiency and we act like that’s normal, it’s all right.”

Nine years ago—when the Partnership first began its work—we switched our schools’ curriculum to the kind of reading instruction that Chancellor Banks and Mayor Eric Adams now advocate for all New York students. We believed in 2013—and we still believe now—that the most powerful lever to transform student achievement is providing students with an early and comprehensive foundation in phonics, and then immersing them in knowledge-rich literacy curricula, taught well. And our students’ proficiency growth in reading on the New York State Test affirms this faith:

So what exactly is wrong with the way many New York children are taught to read?

Back in 2012, Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee authored a collection of blog posts that explained what might be termed “Reading War II”—the sequel to the whole-language v. phonics debates of the 1990s. Here’s an excerpt:

There are two camps in the debate over how to select and assign texts. The first is what I’ll call the “Just Right” or “Goldilocks” books approach. The second I will call the “Grade Appropriate” approach.

The prevailing view among many educators in the United States today is that the best way to improve student reading comprehension is to assign lots of books that are “just right” for individual students. The theory is that every student has three reading levels: an independent reading level (what the student can read without teacher scaffolding or support), an instructional reading level (something just above the student’s independent level, but something that they can access with scaffolding and support), and a frustration level (something that will cause the student to throw up his hands in frustration). In class, the theory goes, teachers should assign (or students should select) books that are pitched at their instructional reading level—not too easy so that they don’t stretch themselves but not too hard so that they don’t get turned off to learning.

Teachers strictly following this approach are challenged to frequently assess student comprehension and carefully monitor student progress, all the while gently pushing them up levels with incrementally more difficult texts.

Makes sense, right?

Not necessarily.

Let’s take, as one example, a ninth-grade student –Maria—who has the equivalent of a fifth-grade reading level. Her peers are reading things like Shakespeare, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemmingway. Maria is reading Maniac Magee. If we assume that both comprehension and cultural and background knowledge build over time, how we will ever get Maria to the same place as her peers? How do you get her from Maniac Magee to Macbeth?

The reality is that the incremental increases in complexity that the “just right” books theory demands simply will never close the gap between Maria and her peers.

Enter the Common Core. The “Grade Appropriate” approach that drives its ELA standards is based on a very different assumption. Teachers who follow the “Grade Appropriate” theory select books, poems, articles, and stories that are appropriate for the grade level, even if that level is above the students’ instructional or independent reading level.

Teaching with this approach can be more challenging, particularly in schools where many students are far behind grade level. A great deal more scaffolding is needed to ensure that all students—including those who are reading far below grade level—are able to understand grade-appropriate texts. 

There are more elements to the teaching of reading than text complexity, of course, and you can read Kathleen’s posts exploring some of these dimensions here, here, and here.

Yet at the heart of what has driven Partnership students’ literacy gains for almost a decade now—and what has helped unlock a whole world of learning for them—comes down to two things: decades of research about the value of teaching grade-level texts, and a Partnership root belief that “We can do hard things.”

As Partnership VP for Academics Maggie Johnson explains, “setting a firm foundation of phonics knowledge in the early grades and then systematically building students’ historical and literary knowledge, book by book, unlocks the ability for students to ‘read to learn’ on their own for the rest of their lives. ”

It may be straightforward, but it’s not easy. As teacher Tali Collins explains, transitioning to the kind of knowledge-rich, carefully sequenced curriculum we use—Core Knowledge Language Arts—is “absolutely challenging.” Tali teaches fourth and fifth grade ELA at St. Thomas Aquinas in Cleveland, a school that joined the Partnership—and adopted the curriculum—two years ago.

“It was particularly difficult to start CKLA in the middle of a pandemic and with an influx of new students, who had to jump into reading about topics they had no prior knowledge of. For example, we started the first unit of fifth grade—”Early American Civilizations”—when students didn’t have background knowledge on what a civilization is or where the Early Americas are.

“But this year, I am seeing the spiral work. This year’s fifth-graders, for example, could compare what they learned about the feudal structure of Europe in the Middle Ages to some of the hierarchies in Early American Civilizations.”

Tali Collins, teaching in the winter of 2022.

Tali adds that the complexity give students so much more than background knowledge that fuels their literacy. “They know this approach is challenging—and they are discovering that they can do it. So many other curricula talk down to kids, and they know it.”

If Banks and the New York DOE follow through on what promises to be a challenging transformation of reading instruction in New York, we hope hundreds of thousands of students will reap the benefits that Partnership students like Tali’s have already experienced.

Two Partnership Alums on the High School They Love and the Opportunities They Now Have

In a few short weeks, twelfth-graders Raven Williams and Savannah Ortiz will graduate from Notre Dame School of Manhattan. The excitement that the two convey about what’s coming next—and the options available to both of them—can go a long way to explaining why the Partnership Schools network exists, and what makes all our efforts worthwhile.

Savannah, who graduated from the Partnership’s St. Athanasius elementary school, is passionate about writing—and she’ll head to Emerson College in Boston this fall to pursue it. “I am the first one in my family to move out for college,” she explains. Her older sister, who is finishing Hunter College, encouraged her to “do what I didn’t get to do—” and go away to school.

Savannah was accepted at four colleges and has received $64,000 to date in merit scholarships.

Raven, a Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary alum, plans to be a journalist, and she received $900,000 in merit-based scholarships to 11 schools. She is headed to Northwestern University outside Chicago this fall.

“I’m first-generation,” she explains, “and it’s a big deal for me to be going off to college. I don’t think my dad will ever admit this out loud, but he is probably more scared than anyone for me to move to Illinois.”

This is not the first time both of them have taken a risk to try a new educational adventure. When Raven was in middle school at MCHR, one of her teachers facilitated her participation in a summer program at Notre Dame—a school Raven’s family knew little about then—so that by the time Partnership counselor Stephanie Read was helping her family with the high school application process, “Notre Dame felt like home already.”

Savannah, who used to enjoy a five-minute walk to St. Athanasius, was introduced to Notre Dame as well by a middle school teacher. Brian Rooney taught her English and “really saw potential in my writing and would always encourage me”; he also urged her to attend Notre Dame’s open house, where she “fell in love with how welcoming all the staff and students were”—enough so that she was willing to take on an hour-plus subway commute every day to the school, which is located in Greenwich Village.

Savannah at her St. Athanasius graduation in 2018.

Both girls felt well-prepared for the coursework and the “different kind of diversity,” as Raven calls it, that they found at Notre Dame. That preparation they received at their Partnership Schools goes beyond the content knowledge that made a rigorous college-prep program like Notre Dame’s accessible to them. Savannah explains that her middle school math teacher at St. Athanasius—Jessica Aybar, now the school’s principal—taught her strategies that she has applied well beyond math. “She always tried to show us multiple methods for doing problems, and I was able to analyze things, find a format that would best work for me. So I learned outside the box thinking from her.”

And that gutsy approach to problem-solving only grew in the all-girls environment at Notre Dame. As Raven explains, “Notre Dame has exposed me to a lot of different things—going to different places, meeting different people. If you had asked me eight months ago if I was going to Northwestern, I would have laughed in your face. But I’ve learned to take risks.”

Raven in her 2018 MCHR yearbook.

We are gratified by what our Partnership elementary schools accomplish. But as our network’s name implies, partnerships are vital to our students’ full flourishing, and the work our educators do to help students access high-quality high schools like Notre Dame is indispensible for fulfilling the aspirations we have for them. And when we see our hopes for students like Raven and Savannah begin to come to fruition thanks to schools like Notre Dame—that they equip our alumni not only with college options, but with a sense of themselves and the world that gives them the curiosity, courage, and openness to grasp such opportunities—it means more to us than we can say.