By Charles Sahm
For six Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx, a remarkable school year that began with a visit from Pope Francis has finished with double-digit test-score increases, far outpacing the gains made by New York’s district schools and charters. It’s a rare and welcome bit of good news for the city’s Catholic schools.
New York’s system of Catholic schools was founded in the nineteenth century by Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes, whose nickname referred not only to the shape of the cross that accompanied his signature, but also to the relentless way he fought on behalf of his flock, then mostly poor Irish immigrants. “We shall have to build the schoolhouse first and the church afterward,” said Hughes. These schools have been serving the less fortunate—originally Irish and Italian immigrants; today, mostly low-income black and Hispanic kids—for more than 150 years. “It was a road of opportunity for kids with no other alternative,” says U.S. Supreme Court associate justice Sonia Sotomayor about her Catholic school education.
Unfortunately, over the past 20 years, New York’s Catholic schools have been in decline. More than 100 have closed since 2000. Rising costs, along with a sharp drop in the number of clergy and women religious—who once provided free labor—have led to tuition increases, squeezing low-income families. Competition from charter schools has hurt. And many of the schools weren’t up to par.
But a feisty band of educators are working to turn Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx into shining examples of student achievement. In 2013, the nonprofit Partnership Schools reached an agreement with the Archdiocese of New York to run six Catholic elementary schools. The results have been astonishing. This year, the Partnership schools achieved a 16.1-percentage-point increase on the state English exam, compared with a 13.7-point increase for city charter schools and 7.6-point increase for district schools. In math, Partnership schools gained 13 points, compared with 4.5 points for charters and 1.2 points for district schools. Over the past two years, the Partnership has practically doubled the percentage of students scoring “proficient” on the state’s English exam, from 22 to 43 percent, and nearly tripled the math proficiency, from 17 to 45 percent.
How are they achieving these remarkable gains? “We need to give credit first and foremost to our hardworking teachers and principals,” notes Jill Kafka, the Partnership’s executive director. “It was hard at first. But our teachers are now excited and empowered by all the new materials and supports that have been put in place.”
The person who put those new materials and supports in place is the Partnership’s superintendent, Kathleen Porter-Magee. A former teacher, charter school administrator, think-tank scholar, and curriculum developer, Porter-Magee deeply respects Catholic education. She attended Catholic schools and taught at one. “Urban Catholic schools, in particular,” she argues, “are a gem worth investing in and saving and have the ability to inform the larger education-reform agenda.”
Porter-Magee believes in a content-rich, coherently sequenced curriculum. “We’re a curriculum-driven model . . . . One of the most critical levers for change is to get the right instructional materials to teachers and ensure that those materials provide as clear a road map as possible to teach rigorous content and core skills to mastery,” she explains. “We want to ensure that teachers have the right materials so that they don’t have to develop their own. . . . We want them to focus on teaching and adding in constant curriculum development is exhausting.”
The Partnership schools employ the Core Knowledge Language Arts curriculum, which emphasizes students’ background knowledge in a wide range of subjects, from history to art, as key to building literacy. For math, the network is now mostly using the highly rated Eureka Math curriculum. The right curricular materials are especially important for the Partnership, where per-pupil spending is only $8,400 (compared with over $20,000 for district schools). “We have to make strategic choices,” explains Porter-Magee. Core Knowledge and Eureka were developed by nonprofits and are relatively inexpensive.
Porter-Magee realizes that “just handing materials over to teachers and wishing them luck isn’t enough.” So the Partnership has invested heavily in professional development, including forming partnerships with outside groups such as Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion program and the Alliance for Catholic Education, which is akin to Teach for America for Catholic schools.
Much teacher support is now generated in-house. Teachers worked together to create Partnership-specific teaching guides and use data from interim assessments to improve their teaching and student achievement. Partnership schools are now part of a network, which allows for efficiencies and for teachers to collaborate and share ideas as never before.
After some initial resistance, the teachers, who are unionized, seem to have bought in to the program. Of the Partnership’s 94 full-time teachers, only seven won’t return this September. Four of the Partnership’s six principals are eligible for retirement but are staying on. One of those principals, Joanne Walsh, has been a Catholic school principal for 25 years and says that now that the Partnership has taken over much of her administrative duties she no longer has to worry about “boilers and tuition collection and human resource paper processing” and can focus on “helping teachers hone their craft and working with parents. It’s life-changing.”
Test scores are up—and so is enrollment (the six Partnership schools now enroll more than 2,100 students), student and teacher retention, parental satisfaction, and fund-raising. The ongoing turnaround of the Partnership schools provides an example—to Catholic, charter, and district schools—of what can be accomplished with smart leadership, very little money, and a lot of hard work. Dagger John would be proud.
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