Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee to Take on New Role

Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee has shared that she is stepping down from her position this summer after ten years of service to our schools. 

Kathleen has accepted the position of Managing Partner of the Leadership Roundtable, an organization of lay, religious, and ordained leaders who work together to promote best practices and accountability in the management and operations of Catholic institutions throughout the U.S.

Partnership Executive Director Kristen Gengaro announced that Kathleen will transition from Superintendent to the role of Special Advisor to the Partnership, so she can continue to support our important work and offer continuity moving forward. Christian Dallavis, current superintendent of the Partnership’s Cleveland schools and former head of the Remick Leaders Program at Notre Dame, will take on the interim management of our principals in both New York and Cleveland so that our work will continue uninterrupted in the months ahead.

In a message to her colleagues, Kathleen shared:

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since I joined what was then the brand-new Partnership Schools network. At that time, our network was seen as a risky experiment. Today, it serves as a powerful example of an emergent Catholic schools renaissance.

We took a leap of faith together to preserve those things that made our schools and communities great while embracing new approaches to drive life-changing results for the students we serve. 

While the work we do is deeply personal, our core value of humility calls each of us to remember that our success demands that we build something that will outlast us. And so as I wrap my tenth year, I leave with confidence of knowing that our strength lies not with any individual, but in the collective wisdom and experience of the entire team of network leaders, faculty, staff, and school leaders who support our students and communities everyday. 

In the same announcement to our staff,  Kristen shared with the entire Partnership team that we are heartened by knowing that Kathleen’s impact will spread further through the Leadership Roundtable, with whom the Partnership has collaborated over the last several years. “We certainly look forward to more synergies with the Leadership Roundtable’s work and the Partnership’s in the years to come,” she noted. 

For more on the Leadership Roundtable’s work and their announcement of Kathleen’s position, click here

 

For more information, contact Beth Blaufuss at beth.blaufuss@thepartnershipschools.org

Partnership Teacher Support In Practice

“I learn every day.” 

At Partnership Schools, we certainly hope to hear our students rejoice in learning every day. It is uniquely gratifying, though—and not surprising—to hear it from Maritza Minnucci, who has taught Kindergarten at Sacred Heart School in the South Bronx for over 25 years. This year, she explained recently, she is sharpening her use of clear aims to guide each lesson. That focus on leveraging aims to level up instruction is a network-wide effort, but Maritza is making it all her own.

The satisfaction she takes in continually improving how she teaches her young students is just one of the qualities that make Maritza a truly special teacher. The skills she is refining might sound a tad wonky to someone who has never taught—she is particularly excited this year by her work with anchor questions, for example—but the joy she exudes when she talks about continuing to improve her craft is unmistakable. 

Maritza Minnucci, Elvis Eduarte, and Dominique Brown

It is a joy she shared recently along with two of her colleagues—Elvis Eduarte, who has been teaching math in Partnership Schools for a handful of years and who is refining his lesson planning with a keen eye to what his middle school students already know; and Dominique Brown, who is in her second year of teaching second grade at Sacred Heart. 

As a newer teacher, Dominique explains that she is gaining confidence. “Being really focused on the lesson aim gives me a goal to meet when I am planning lessons,” she explains; she particularly embraces the practice of writing out a perfect exemplar of work students will be asked to do and anticipating what roadblocks the diverse learners in her class might encounter along the way. She is working with Sacred Heart’s principal in residence, Kelly Quinn, in routine coaching cycles like those most Partnership teachers engage in, which provide an opportunity to integrate planning practices that emerge in network-wide workshops and school-site weekly trainings. 

Like Dominique, Elvis is planning with the wide range of prior knowledge his students have in mind. Along with other Partnership schools in New York, Sacred Heart has had an influx of new students in the last few years, many with varying degrees of lingering learning loss from the pandemic, and meeting all of their needs has made even trickier the already significant challenge of helping middle schoolers grasp the fundamentals of Algebra. Yet Elvis gets animated as he explains one simple shift he’s making: no longer calling on students to add their ideas as he does the demonstration portion of lessons. The single-voice approach is helping his most struggling students have a clear model to refer to as they practice a new algorithm, and he is seeing them make new progress as a result.

Listening to Maritza, Elvis, and Dominique’s enthusiasm for improving their professional practice is even more heartening in light of recent polling of over two thousand teachers by the Pew Research Center. Words like “stressful” and “overwhelming” punctuate the report, in which over half (52%) of the public school teachers polled indicated that they would not encourage a young person starting out today to become a teacher. 

At the Partnership, we know that if we want thriving students, we need teachers who feel–and are–effective. We are blessed to work with teachers who are motivated because they care deeply about the communities we serve. They came to make a difference—and comprehensive support of their development is crucial for our teachers to make the impact our students deserve, impact that also helps inspire teachers to stick with challenging work, year after year.

Principal in Residence Kelly Quinn notes that Maritza, Elvis, and Dominique are all committed professionals whose growth is, in part, self-driven. But all three explain that it is the combination of network-wide workshops integrated with school-site sessions and individual coaching that makes a real difference in their technique. Maritza is quick to point out that she relishes network-wide workshops because they give her an opportunity to learn from colleagues at other schools; indeed, the fact that all our schools share the same curricula and lesson pacing amplifies the peer learning at network events, because teachers are all applying new skills in real time to upcoming lessons and giving each other feedback. 

Teacher development is about our students’ learning—but it gives us so much more. We often say that our schools are more than classrooms; they are communities. Professional support for teachers is vital to sustaining those communities and advancing their pursuit of academic excellence.

Roots and Wings: A Second-Generation St. Athanasius Family Shines

When Catherine Soto was a student at Saint Athanasius in the Bronx, she could peer out of her classroom window across Southern Boulevard and watch her grandmother cook dinner. The school was a second home, a place that propelled her to Cornell University and to a position as an executive at a healthcare non-profit.

She and her husband set down roots further north in the Bronx—but when it came time to choose an elementary school for her older son, she wanted him to have the same mix of community and possibility she had growing up. Thus they chose St. Athanasius for their children too. Now her oldest, Aaron, is headed to the Dwight School in Manhattan after he graduates from St. Athanasius this spring. 

There was a time in the history of working-class Catholic schools when the academic excellence children received in them often propelled graduates out of the neighborhoods where they were raised, to what many saw as a “better life,” often in the suburbs. The Sotos’ trajectories out of—and back to—St. Athanasius suggest that story might be due for a 21st Century update. 

Seen and Known at St. Athanasius

Of Dominican-American heritage, Catherine explains, “I love St. Athanasius because my children are proud of their culture. They have grown up in it.” 

The school also has the academic standards she expects for Aaron and his younger brother, second grader Nolan. Those standards are upheld by people who know her two children well and reinforce the values that mean so much to her—values of integrity, humility, hard work, service, and kindness.  

Aaron, his mother says, “is the kind of kid who embodies the core values of Saint Athanasius.” He is creative, filling sketchbooks with animated characters, including a detailed depiction of imaginary chess pieces in conflict. The teachers and school leadership perceived his talents and character and offered him opportunities to shine from time to time, like reading at school Masses. He is “a leader in his little class,” she says with pride. 

Supported in the High School Search

With years of consistent support from the educators at St. Athanasius, Catherine knew where to turn when it was time to start looking at high schools. The process originally seemed intimidating. But principal Jessica Aybar and then-dean Fiona Palladino suggested Aaron apply to the Oliver Scholars, a program that helps students from underserved New York communities flourish in high-performing independent schools and beyond. 

Both Oliver Scholars and Chris Matesic, director of high school placement for Partnership Schools, knew that Aaron would be a good candidate for a wide range of institutions, and both encouraged Aaron to cast his net wide.

With their support, Aaron earned admission to a number of independent boarding and day schools, including Dwight, which has awarded him a significant scholarship. The institution has campuses in London, Seoul, Shanghai, Dubai and Hanoi, as well as Central Park West in Manhattan, which Aaron will attend. Tuition this year at its New York campus is just over $60,000. 

“The school has an international base,” Catherine says. “They really value kids from different backgrounds.” The flag of the Dominican Republic, flying with others at the school, as well as the staff and parents’ welcome has assured her; “It all said that there is acceptance here,” says Catherine.

“You don’t have to be afraid to ask for support. People don’t know what you don’t know.”

Being connected to a Partnership School made the process of finding Dwight and securing a scholarship easier, says Catherine. She advises parents in her situation to explore their options and not to be intimidated. “You don’t have to be afraid to ask for support. People don’t know what you don’t know,” she says, noting it is vital to find a school that can align “with the goals you have for your child.”

Comfortable Community, Profound Possibility 

While the geographic distance from Saint Athanasius to the Dwight School may be only seven miles and a few subway stops, there is a perceived cultural chasm between the Bronx and Central Park West. But Catherine says she is confident that her son can bridge that gap. He will have an example in his mother, who navigated the distance between the Bronx and Cornell, a process she recalls as a challenging one.

Aaron’s mother went from watching her grandmother from her classroom window in the Bronx to Cornell, thanks to a tight and supportive community at Saint Athanasius, a place close to home yet able to propel students far beyond. To the supporters who have made it possible for St. Athanasius to continue providing her children and others the same mix of community and opportunity, Catherine has one message: “Thank you.

Behind the Numbers: What Parents Share about Choosing Partnership Schools

In both New York and Cleveland, our schools are seeing a wide array of parents seeking out enrollment for their children, including many who, by their own admission, had not previously considered parochial schools. We’ve previously shared that our schools in New York, for example, have seen a significant 28% increase in enrollment since the pandemic began, and the majority of those families are seeking out a Catholic school for the first time.

So why choose one now? The reasons are varied, and we find that most families have multiple aims driving them to seek out a Partnership school. We spoke with several parents to get insights into why they transferred their children to our schools. The experiences of two moms, one in East Harlem and the other in the South Bronx, help us appreciate some of the goals our families have—and the potential of our schools to provide even more than they are looking for.

Seeking Rigor, and Finding “A Family Feel”

Liliana Jimenez’s son Adonis transferred to Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem this year, at the beginning of sixth grade. Liliana—whose love for Greek mythology in school inspired her son’s name—explained, “I felt Adonis needed more of a challenge.” 

She thought that in addition to the core writing and math skill development he was already getting, he could use deeper knowledge about science and social studies. They have found that at OLQA; in fact, Liliana is now pleased to see her son able to converse intelligently with his cousins about world issues.

Discipline was also an issue. “He would come home upset because his classmates’ behavior was not good,” she said. They like the environment for learning at OLQA—which is gratifying validation of the work that our network and school teams put in to building positive school cultures and equipping teachers with classroom strategies for reinforcing them. 

That warm, welcoming culture at OLQA extends to parents. “It has a family kind of feel,” she said, noting that principal James Sayer and his staff are always willing to answer her questions. 

Liliana is a baptized Catholic, even though at this point she doesn’t attend church regularly. But the family prays together and believes in God, she emphasized. Now, Adonis is beginning to feel a spiritual pull—an interest his mother attributes to the spirituality and prayer which is a routine part of the school day at Our Lady Queen of Angels. This Easter season, he plans to be baptized at St. Cecilia’s Church.

A public-school grad, Liliana admires the educational foundation that her friends who attended Catholic schools have, something they take to their careers and family lives. “I wanted to give my son that,” she said.

Music and Ministry

Sharon Reed’s daughter, Aria, transferred to Sacred Heart in the Bronx two years ago, in fifth grade. Sharon found out about the school the way most of our parents do: through an informal network of friends and family. While Sharon feared that nearby Yankee Stadium traffic might make it difficult for her to get to the school quickly if needed, that fear was outweighed by the access to the music program and faith formation offered at Sacred Heart.

 

Aria enjoys the opportunity to play the piano and discovered both the violin and cello at Sacred Heart.

As with Liliana, Sharon appreciates the Catholic dimension of Catholic schools. “I like the moral compass that religion brings,” she said. “It’s something she wouldn’t get at a public or a charter school. The moral compass teaches her to do the right thing.”

She too likes the school’s low tolerance for disruptive behavior, and she particularly values the culture of unity at Sacred Heart. “For the most part, the students are on the same playing field. It’s not about the class issues that you see in public school or in some charter schools,” she said, noting that in this context, she means class in terms of perceived social standing. 

Like Liliana, she finds the school staff—led by principal Abigail Akano—always quick to respond to her concerns as a parent. It’s made her occasional struggles with Yankee Stadium traffic worthwhile. “I just wish I had done it sooner,” she said about the decision to enroll Aria at Sacred Heart. 

Conclusion

We have sought to ensure that Partnership Schools are more than classrooms: they are communities. As Sharon and Liliana explain, programs including academics and the arts are essential for their children, but they are after something more—values and spirituality along with skills and knowledge—and the kind of community that parents like them help Partnership Schools build every day.

“I Love All the Opportunities I Have Here”: From Archbishop Lyke to Gilmour Academy

Gilmour was quite intimidating, to be honest,” Lula Williams admits. 

She and her daughter, Lunden, first encountered the independent Catholic day and boarding school in the Cleveland suburbs last year, when Lunden was in eighth grade at Archbishop Lyke. Immediately, the family noticed two things: the cost of tuition, and the fact that there were fewer people “who looked like us” than at Archbishop Lyke. 

But they also noticed the nice campus, the abundant co-curricular activities, and the college-prep curriculum. They decided to give it a shot—and to their surprise and delight, Gilmour admitted Lunden and let her know that she was to receive a Howley Scholarship to attend. “Shine bright—always believe in your dreams,” reads the card Ms. Williams gave Lunden to celebrate her admission.

Pursuing their dreams is precisely what Partnership Schools aim to equip our students to do—particularly game-changing dreams like admission to and scholarships for high-performing high schools. Lunden’s experience at Gilmour Academy embodies both the preparation that our schools aim to provide students and the qualities of high school environments in which they can thrive.

“The community is nice, welcoming, and I have lots of opportunities for activities,” Lunden explains enthusiastically. She enjoyed her first year playing volleyball, for example. And she is quick to note that “the academics are preparing me for college.”

“I thought the work was going to be really hard, but it’s not too hard, not too easy.” Lunden adds, “Archbishop Lyke definitely prepared me.” Her mother is even more emphatic: “Lunden would not be at Gilmour without Archbishop Lyke.” The values and respect at Archbishop Lyke, the way in which “teachers and students hold each other accountable,” are as essential as the curriculum at Lyke, where Lunden’s brother Ralph is currently in seventh grade. 

Gilmour definitely still challenges Lunden, particularly physics and giving group presentations in class. But she is quick to note that as a Howley Scholar, she has a resource as valuable as the four-year merit scholarship itself: Kevin Johnson, the Howley Scholars Coordinator at Gilmour.“ Mr. Johnson checks in on you. If you need something, they provide it.” She notes that Mr. Johnson supports her in addition to the faculty advisor that all Gilmour students have.

We call ourselves “Partnership Schools” for one reason: it takes powerful partnerships to help promising students like Lunden thrive. With supportive parents, academic and character formation at Archbishop Lyke, and all that both Gilmour and the Howley Scholars program offer, Lunden is thriving. Meanwhile, Archbishop Lyke and the other three Cleveland Partnership Schools are hard at work, ensuring that hundreds more students have what they need to unlock similar opportunities and “shine bright,” as Lunden’s mom encourages her to do.

St. Charles Borromeo Nearly Doubles Its Enrollment

This week, St. Charles Borromeo School enrolled their 369th student. Just three years ago—as St. Charles joined the Partnership in 2019—they had 186 students. Principal Natalia Rodrigo and her team have nearly doubled the size of the school, and the student body has increased over forty percent since just last year.

How are they doing it? “It’s multifaceted,” Natalia explains. “But mostly, it’s community outreach. And when someone applies, we are intentional and personal about giving them a sense of what it’s like to be a St. Charles student.”

She elaborates: We’ve been very intentional about all our partnerships with community groups. The word has gotten out, particularly about how affordable we are. So interest is up, and we’re getting a lot of referrals.”

“Our root beliefs include the idea that we are a family, and every one of us on the team exhibits that from the moment anyone enters this building. We are finding that personal touch means so much. People don’t just want a school; they want a community. And they want a community that really knows them.”

St. Charles Dean Shameika Freeman holds a story time for newly admitted students, one way the school builds a sense of community with new families over the summer.

“For example, one mom called to inquire about her students coming here and kept saying, ‘but we’re Muslim.’ It wouldn’t work for me just to tell her over the phone that her children are welcome here. She came in, and she experienced first-hand the respect I told her about. She saw the materials from the Core Knowledge Language Arts unit where all our students learn about Medieval Islamic Empires. And the curriculum plays a role for other parents, too. Plus, the building looks great.”

The enrollment increase at St. Charles provides a powerful proofpoint about how the Partnership unlocks the opportunities that exist for Catholic schools in the neighborhoods we serve. In our first decade, we’ve come to appreciate how much our work demands a strategic balancing of both network support and school team ownership.

New and returning middle schoolers make candles in a community activity over the summer.

For example, St. Charles’s affordability is a direct result of the tuition pilot that the network rolled out across all seven New York schools last year. As a network, we clarified what our schools cost to parents, simplified the process of applying for the scholarships that fill the gap between what families can afford and what our schools cost, and set about fundraising for those scholarships on a scale that would be nearly impossible for a lone parochial school to accomplish. Additionally, our inquiry and enrollment systems—along with the curriculum that Natalia notes is now influencing parents’ decisions—are all network-wide.

Yet as Partnership Vice President of Operations Maria Cristina Ventresca explains, “the support our network gives when it comes to enrollment systems and scholarships is essential, but it is not enough. As increases at St. Charles and several of our other schools demonstrate, parents’ decisions about where they send their children to school are deeply personal. School teams can build personal relationships and conduct creative outreach in their communities better than our network team ever could. And while the network provides tools like our enrollment system and approach to tuition, it is only the way schools use those tools that can really impact the number of students we serve.”

Along with St. Charles, all our schools throughout New York and Cleveland will continue to enroll students as the school year kicks off, building on last year’s 15 percent enrollment increase in New York and the astounding forty percent increase that our first two Cleveland schools achieved in 2020. As Partnership Assistant Superintendent Christian Dallavis explains, increasing the number of students we serve isn’t the goal of our work; it is the start of it. “Growing enrollment is the first step. The long game is preparing future leaders…whose lives will make God known, loved, and served.”

 

The Partnership Names Four New Executive Principals

When the Partnership began to run Catholic schools in a new way a decade ago—leveraging the power of a network to unlock the full potential of schools with deep community roots—our aim was to ensure that each principal had the support s/he needed to lead effectively. Crucial to our model from the jump, however, was our steadfast belief that we cannot run great schools from the network office. The network team is a support structure; the schools are the engine. This month, we institutionalize that ethos in a new way: by naming four currently-serving school leaders to be the first Partnership executive principals.

Together, Abigail Akano, Jessica Aybar, Alexandra Benjamin, and Natalia Rodrigo represent 29 years of school leadership—and a range of invaluable perspectives. As executive principals, they will remain leaders of the four Partnership schools they serve—Sacred Heart, St. Athanasius, Immaculate Conception, and St. Charles Borromeo—while also providing strategic leadership network-wide.

 

Crucial Voices

 

“Our school leaders are critical network leaders,” Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee explains. “We aim to create a model that elevates voices from our schools and extends their impact without removing them from their communities.”

Jessica Aybar explains, “One of the Partnership’s core values is humility, and it’s a value that I’ve seen modeled by network leaders so many times. As principals, we’re invited and encouraged to share feedback, problem-solve challenges and poke helpful holes in plans to get to a more refined end product. I see the executive principal role as an opportunity to take that to the next level by being more involved in establishing the network vision for academics, operations, and culture.”

 

Jessica Aybar, Executive Principal of St. Athanasius School in the Bronx.

 

A Climate of Trust

 

There’s one word all four executive principals use when they talk about what it’s like to lead a school within the Partnership: trust. Alexandra Benjamin worked for a charter network before coming to the Partnership, and she explains, “The Partnership differs from other networks that I have worked for in that the network has allowed me to lead ICS in a way that is aligned with my vision. The trust and support they have provided me have allowed me to achieve many of the goals I have set for ICS. The ability to work within a team that welcomes authentic conversation and thought-partnership is something that makes me feel like my experience and beliefs are valued when doing this challenging work.”

Alexandra Benjamin, Executive Principal of Immaculate Conception in the South Bronx.

 

A Spirit of Collaboration

Abigail Akano is excited about this new role because it gives her more opportunities to help support new leaders in the network. Yet she’s quick to explain that such collaboration among principals has already been happening for years: “There is not a day that I don’t text and call colleagues, and I want new leaders to feel that way. I want to be able to learn from others and have them learn from me. Being a principal in the network is so much less silo’ed; there is a spirit of community.”

Abigail Akano, Executive Principal of Sacred Heart School in the Bronx.

Natalia Rodrigo concurs. “One of our SCB root beliefs is “We are a Family.” The Partnership embodies that.  A family seeks out what will make it stronger and will create a foundation for it.” And Alexandra is quick to agree: “We have always worked together to problem solve, share ideas, and laugh….ALOT.”

Natalia Rodrigo, Executive Principal of St. Charles Borromeo School, Harlem.

 

A Diversity of Perspectives

 

With typical candor and trust, several of the executive principals also note that their elevation to this new role is important for the diversity they add to the network leadership team. “During the George Floyd summer,” Abigail explains, “we had a network-wide conversation where we talked about diversity in the network. This is one step toward racial diversity in the network’s leadership team.”

Natalia agrees. “Representation matters. It is important that our students and community have educators that look like them, care, and hold them to a high standard.”

The diversity that our executive principals bring to network decision-making is multi-dimensional. Abigail also notes that “it’s one thing for network-level folks to make decisions, but they have a lens that is different than that of those of us who are in the trenches. Both views are important. Additionally, the four of us who are exec principals bring very distinct views.”

 

Conclusion

 

“Transformational schools need transformational leaders,” Jessica explains. Transformational networks do too—which is one of many reasons we are thrilled to have four transformational leaders as the Partnership’s new executive principals.