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.

Harlem teacher gives what she received at St. Charles Borromeo

The halls at St. Charles Borromeo School in Harlem are lined with photos from graduates of years past, included, among thousands, the 13-year-old visage of Najé George. But you’ll also see her walking in those hallways in 2024, on her way to teach first grade or checking in on her own children, fifth grader Noah and pre-K student Nyla. 

A photo of her oldest daughter, Nevaeh, hangs on the wall too; she graduated in 2022 and is a junior at Notre Dame School of Manhattan. Her youngest child, Niko, isn’t old enough to attend St. Charles but no doubt will when the time comes. Ms. George’s mother still lives across the street in the apartment Ms. George was raised in at the Drew Hamilton houses. 

St. Charles is truly a family affair for Ms. George. 

She joined the school’s faculty two years ago, in part because the school’s exploding enrollment called for a second class of first grade to be added. The school has more than doubled in size since it joined the Partnership in 2019. St. Charles’ growth can be attributed to many causes: parents sought new options in the wake of COVID learning disruptions, scholarship support made it more affordable, and principal Natalia Rodrigo and her team have done energetic outreach. Yet parents often cite the powerful sense of community at the school as a draw.

At a time when the nation is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness, Naje George has chosen to provide her students at St. Charles the same strong sense of community she received there. As she explains, she began her teaching career at a school for special needs students downtown. But when she interviewed for the position at St. Charles, she thought, “This is it—I’m here—I’m home.” 

Naje George with her children Nevaeh, Noah, Nyla, and Niko.

That sense of belonging she experienced and now provides to her students at St. Charles has multiple layers. It is anchored in spirituality. Ms. George has been part of the    St. Charles church choir and the larger parish community ever since she was baptized as an infant. Before she was born, her mother roamed the neighborhood seeking out a church, both Protestant and Catholic, before deciding to make her family’s spiritual home at St. Charles Borromeo, a beacon for Black Catholics located in the most famous of African American neighborhoods. 

Ms. George reinforces that spiritual community in her classroom. Every week her first-graders go to Mass together. Ms. Nage wears a cross, often commented upon by her students, which include Catholics and non-Catholics.

That sense of belonging she inherited and now teaches is also bound up in the pride and power of St. Charles as a Harlem institution. She explains that her students “can see a teacher who looks like them.” They learn, she says, “You can go anywhere in the world and you can still go home.”

The community is also a powerful support to her now, as a teacher dedicated to her craft. Several of her colleagues—including middle school teacher Brian Tillery and Principal Natalia Rodrigo—were her teachers as well, and they serve as models she strives to emulate, even as this busy teacher and mom also pursues a graduate degree at Teachers College–Columbia. 

“When I’m struggling as a teacher, I think, what would Ms. Selby do?” Janice Selby, Ms. George’s own fourth-grade teacher, overlapped with her as a colleague until she retired in 2022 after 42 years of service. 

In her classroom, as Ms. George prepares a math lesson as well as a class on ancient Egypt, she reflects that her teachers “Gave me love, a way to know who I am.” Now, she gives that to her students in the same hallways. 

“We want all the children to feel loved and cared for. She brings what she received,” Ms. Rodrigo says about her first-grade teacher. 

The power of long-serving Catholic schools is, as we say often at the Partnership, that they are “more than classrooms; they are a community.” Those communities are established and maintained by a powerful force: the commitment of educators and parents like Ms. George. They are a particular blessing in a time when we need strong communities as much as ever.

Amy and Jim Kubacki Join the Partnership Team in Cleveland

Jim and Amy Kubacki, well-known for their work at Cleveland Catholic high schools, are teaming up to move the city’s four Partnership schools forward.

Jim retired as president of St. Edward High School a year ago, after leading the school to unprecedented success during his twelve-year tenure, including significant expansion of its academic programs and facilities. Amy has enjoyed a long career in fundraising, including stints locally at Cleveland Clinic and Magnificat High School. Amy and Jim will serve as co-vice presidents of development for the Partnership.

“These schools are undertaking a critical mission on behalf of Cleveland children,” Amy explained. Jim adds, “It is also an honor to carry on the work of the Partnership that Rich Clark brought to Cleveland.” Clark, who founded Saint Martin de Porres High School in 2003, died unexpectedly last September, after initiating the Partnership’s expansion to Cleveland in 2020.

“Providing every child with an excellent, values-based education is the best hope for the next generation in Cleveland,” said Amy. “Jim and I are excited to be joining the talented Partnership Schools team and to use our experience to realize the vision first imagined by our friend, Rich Clark.”

Jim adds, “The Partnership Schools are the best-kept secret in Cleveland. We plan to raise awareness and raise the necessary support for these deserving youngsters. Every child deserves an opportunity to fulfill his or her own God-given potential.”

They have added Theresa Day, a seasoned development professional, as a third member of their team and director of development.

Christian Dallavis, superintendent of the Partnership Schools in Cleveland, commented, “We are so excited to work with Jim, Amy, and Theresa. They share our ambitions for the students and school communities we serve, and I can’t think of better people to carry Rich’s vision forward.”

From OLQA to Xavier and Beyond: Partnership Alums and the Power of Relationships

This month, Ivan Sanchez celebrated his graduation from Xavier High School with a handful of friends he has known since second grade at the Partnership’s Our Lady Queen of Angels. But these young men share a bond that goes deeper than just attending school together—one that demonstrates that relationships are crucial for the power our schools can have.

Like Ivan, his closest friends are each among the first—if not the first—in their families to attend college. And they agree with Ivan about one crucial factor in their progress so far: “The friends from OLQA who I went to Xavier with held me to my expectations that I could make my family proud. I wanted to be surrounded by people who wanted to do more than me, so that I would be motivated to want to do more.” 

That “doing more” included a decision they made in middle school to go together to Xavier. It started, apparently, with Diego’s brother, who was already at the high school, and Ivan’s mom, who wanted him to go there. Their friend Gael agreed. Jesus was ready to go his own way, but he opted to join the others. He says, “my parents work double shifts, and my sisters helped raise me, so it is great to have friends, too—a brotherhood.” A few other OLQA classmates joined the brotherhood too.

Gael Cuautle, Justin Díaz, Diego Ramos Carpio, Andy Canelo, Jesús Cuellar & Ivan Sanchez in eighth grade at OLQA.

All agree that their support of each other began at OLQA, and it was an extension of the encouragement and high expectations their teachers had for them. “We were a bit disruptive in middle school,” Jesus admits. But with the help of a few teachers and the desire to go to a competitive high school together, they “got better at differentiating when it’s time to joke and when it’s time to work,” Ivan adds.

Each brings a helpful trait to the group. “I’m the instigator,” Diego explains. That initiative is playing out in his plans; headed to City College in the fall, he already runs a clothing company that sells merchandise at music events. 

Ivan, who is going to Cornell in the fall to study architecture, is “the organized one; he keeps me on track,” Jesus shares. 

Gael—the one of the guys to play a varsity sport at Xavier—says that his friends have helped him remain competitive while also learning to take a loss. He’ll be studying computer science at Baruch. 

And Jesus—“the one who is always on time”–is studying electrical engineering at NYU.

They agree that the values they learned at OLQA–integrity, humility, hard work, and service—and the academic preparation they received there were crucial as well. And Ivan, who has gone back to volunteer at OLQA, likes how the Partnership’s curriculum has become more advanced since he graduated. “Sixth graders are learning mixed fractions–I didn’t do that until eighth grade!”

The boys are adamant that Xavier isn’t just an excellent high school; it has been excellent for them. “The quality of teachers here is amazing, the electives and activities are amazing, and it is a real community. Everybody gets treated equally in the classroom, no matter their background. I met an alum who was forty or fifty years old, and we really hit it off; there is always that connection, always that community,” Ivan says.

For several years, Partnership Schools has asserted that our schools are “more than classrooms; a community.” That community extends beyond the one the boys formed and includes the supporters who made it possible for them to attend both schools. Jesus explains that support was particularly pivotal for his family during COVID, when they needed extra help that the schools provided to his family and others.

As young “men for others” who have benefited from support in their school communities and provided it to each other, Ivan, Jesus, Diego, Gael, and their other friends from OLQA vividly embody how crucial relationships are to the future we envision for our students and our communities. And they figure prominently in each other’s vision for the future too; Ivan volunteers with conviction that these friends “will be the groomsmen at my wedding some day.” 

We wish them and all the friends formed at our schools the very best this graduation season.

This post has been edited to reflect the correct college destinations.

Fathers at St. Thomas Aquinas Are Helping Students Thrive—and Each Other

On any given school day this spring at St. Thomas Aquinas School on Cleveland’s east side, you can look down the hall and see something that may not be a common sight in other elementary schools: dads. 

“I love getting up every morning and coming here,” Ricardo Richmond explains. You’ll see him do for all sorts of students in the hall what he does for his twin daughters at home: give a high-five, help a student learn to tie a loose shoelace, or listen to a young person who is having a frustrating day. You’ll see Jeff Allen do the same many afternoons, along with a handful of other dads. Mr. Allen also has two daughters at the school, but they are not the only reasons why he is there. “Every kid here is mine through God,” he explains.

Helping all God’s children at St. Thomas Aquinas “down the right path” is the mission of these fathers. In late winter, they answered a call from the school’s dean, Tali Collins, for dads who might be willing to spend time at the school during the day—”not to be scary,” she explains, but “to walk the path of excellence with students.” The school, commonly referred to as “STA” by members of the community, calls the dad’s group “STAnd Together.” Mr. Richmond and Mr. Allen have stood together with the students almost every day since. 

As volunteers, they join in the work that another St. Thomas dad—Alex Afzal—does daily in his work as the school’s operations manager, who interacts with students and parents daily. “I think every school should have a stronger male presence,” Mr. Afzal says—and he acts on that belief by working at his children’s school. 

St. Thomas fathers with Academic Dean Tali Collins.

Middle schoolers King and Elijah explain what all three fathers do. “They check on you. They really care. They listen.” Elijah explains that a frustrating comment from a fellow student the day before “got my emotions a little out of control,” and King encouraged him to go talk with Mr. Richmond, who “made sure I was OK.” And just knowing they are cared for by men in the community who model concern for others has had an impact that King notices: “it’s quieter in the hallways”—and Elijah adds, “more peaceful.” 

Mr. Richmond and Mr. Allen make it clear that the nurture they are providing is far from what they experienced as children. “The streets raised me,” Mr. Richmond explains, “not parents or school.” Mr. Allen reflects frankly that his early years as a dad were not ones he’s proud of—which makes the second chance that he has to raise his stepdaughters and help their classmates all the more important to him. 

It is their imperfections as much as their skills that drive Mr. Allen and Mr. Richmond to show up as dads at the school every day. “I want my children to go where I am going, not where I have been,” Mr. Richmond says candidly.

“I am in the healing process,” Mr. Allen adds. “And that’s where our power comes from.” He also shares that spending time with other dads at St. Thomas has helped him develop a few new approaches. “I’ve learned from Richmond here,” he says with a grin; “he’s good at calming kids down.” 

Having parents roaming the halls might create challenges to school culture, rather than reinforcing it. But Dean Tali Collins was clear with the dads about the value they bring, and the dads have embraced the spirit of collaboration that inspired her to reach out in the first place. “We can’t overshadow the teachers,” Mr. Allen explains. “We’ve got a lot of humility in our walk here.”

Having your dad in the hallway might also be unwelcome for some children, and Mr. Richmond’s daughter Amanda admits that at first, “I was embarrassed” to have him at school so often. But now she and her sister Chloe—along with Mr. Allen’s stepdaughters Releesha and Theresa—agree that it “feels good” to watch their dads help others.

Mr. Richmond, the hard-working single father of twin girls, does not hesitate to explain that “God blessed me” with his children, “and being able to sacrifice for other people’s children in the school while mine are watching” is an added blessing. All three hope similar models of father involvement can spread to other schools.

It is the true spirit of partnership—of parents, educators, and supporters coming together to give children what none of them alone can provide—that gives our schools their power. While that collaboration may look different from school to school—and from decades past at Catholic schools—it is as valuable now at each Partnership school as it was decades ago, when they were first founded by and for the communities they continue to serve. And at St. Thomas Aquinas this spring, it is fathers who are making the community stronger. 

Celebrating the Partnership Principals

It’s National Principals’ Day, and at Partnership Schools, we have particular cause to be grateful for our eleven principals. 

Each of them leads students, parents, and educators toward a vision of academic excellence and powerful community, every day. To lead meaningful academic growth, particularly in a post-pandemic world, is a real accomplishment; to lead a community toward realizing the ideals Christ sets before us is heroic. To do both simultaneously is a wonder to behold, and at each Partnership School, we get to witness principals doing just that, every day.

As a school network, our model is uniquely tied to the vision and leadership of the principals who guide each of our school communities. As Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee explains, “Our aim is 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.” And those engines are fueled and steered by visionary, fearless, innovative educators.

In January, a parent sent one of our principals an email that expresses better than we ever could the impact that our school leadership teams can have and the emotion that can inspire. “I am in tears right now,” the parent said, and then went on to explain that her eighth grader had received a scholarship to the high school of their choice thanks to support from the school leadership. “I really appreciate everything you both have done for me as well as [my] family!! You guys have literally showed us that you are more than just staff at school but our family as well!! I love you guys with every breath of my being…and I will always remain loyal to you all. Every one of my [children] will enter those doors because I know they are safe there it’s home away from home!!!”

So on this Principals’ Day, we honor all that our principals do… 

from all the moments where they share the joy of learning:

 

 

Executive Principal Jessica Aybar, St. Athanasius, The Bronx
St. Charles Borromeo Executive Principal Natalia Rodrigo

To the thoughtful consideration they give each student, even on busy days and in tough times:

Executive Principal Alex Benjamin, Immaculate Conception, The Bronx

To all the hours they are fully present to students, from the start of the school day…

Nancy Lynch, Archbishop Lyke School, Cleveland

… to dismissal:

Executive Principal Abigail Akano, Sacred Heart, The Bronx

To the help they provide the youngest and most vulnerable among us…

Trista Rivera, Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary, East Harlem

To the role models they serve as, day in and day out:

Chinique Pressley, St. Mark the Evangelist, Harlem

To the love and support they provide…

Liz Nuzzolese, Our Lady Queen of Angels, East Harlem

To the instructional excellence they lead:

Tali Collins, St. Thomas Aquinas, Cleveland

To the beliefs and values they inculcate:

Rachael Dengler, St. Thomas Aquinas, Cleveland

To the community they cultivate:

Carrie Grace, St. Francis of Assisi, Cleveland

And the example they provide to all of us:

Allison Klutarich, Metro Catholic School, Cleveland

We celebrate our Partnership principals, every day. Thank you for all that you do and inspire.

Every Minute Matters: The National School Attendance Crisis

Posted on the walls of several Partnership Schools and lived out in their daily routines is this root belief: Every minute matters. When it comes to school attendance, ample research demonstrates that to be true; every minute in school matters. And yet in the last few years, too many schools have sent the opposite message. They have communicated that school is inessential. The result? We are facing historic declines in student achievement and historic increases in chronic absenteeism, and a generation of children is at risk. 

The data is as stark as it is clear. Among low-income Kindergarteners, missing just two school days a month is a strong predictor that a student will perform in the lowest levels of reading and math even years later, in fifth grade. By sixth grade, students who miss ten percent or more of school—the equivalent of just two days per month—are far more likely to drop out of high school than those who attend school regularly. 

Alarmingly, the number of students who are “chronically absent”—i.e., the number who miss 10 percent of school each year—has doubled since 2020, from 8 million in 2019 to 16 million by the Spring of 2022. 

There are many factors that have contributed to this sharp rise in absenteeism, but one is the culture that we, as a nation, unintentionally created when we shuttered schools for far longer than was necessary–and for far longer than any other developed nation. Too many national, state, and district leaders put reopening bars and restaurants ahead of schools, and too many told parents “not to worry” if their children fell behind. A post widely shared on social media in the spring of 2020—even by schools—demonstrates this cavalier treatment of the harm that even then school closures were causing:

Across the Partnership Schools, we also experienced a decline in daily attendance, but because we reopened as soon as we were able in fall, 2020—and because we have prioritized rebuilding a culture of daily attendance—that decline is miniscule. Prior to Covid, our schools had daily attendance rates greater than 95 percent. Since Covid, our daily attendance rate has hovered around 91 percent—a number that, while obviously quite strong, we remain committed to improving.

“I watch what I do to see what I believe,” Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, once said—reminding us that to have integrity, our actions must match our words. Continuing to live out our belief that every minute in school matters is a daily call to action that our school leaders are meeting head-on, with a range of intentional strategies.

For example, when the team at St. Athanasius found that the school’s information system didn’t give them the quick, holistic view of attendance they sought each morning, they created their own tracker to speed up identification of students and classes with emerging attendance issues, so teachers and the administration can respond to them quickly. 

They’ve increased communication with all parents about attendance, emphasizing its importance and clarifying what constitutes a legitimate absence. “Please don’t come to school when you are sick,” Principal Jessica Aybar explains. “But if it’s raining, if your uniform pants are still in the dryer, if we’ve got a half-day of school on Friday—none of those are acceptable reasons to miss school, and we make that clear.” 

St. Athanasius Principal Jessica Aybar.

Jessica and other principals also have “courageous, honest, transparent conversations about the very real effect of being absent” with parents whose children are absent often. “I explain that it’s not just two days at home; that’s two math lessons, two English Language Arts lessons. And the truth is that if your child is missing many lessons each month, we can’t catch them up for all that. The teacher is never going to teach that whole lesson again. We are always here to support our students along the way, but the larger the gaps, the harder it is to fill.” She describes the setbacks of frequent absences layered on top of pandemic learning delays as “running on a treadmill and going nowhere.” 

She also works sympathetically with parents on the unglamorous parenting routines that guard the school’s belief that “learning is sacred work.” She says that she and other administrators “need to work with parents to find solutions–’yeah, I really do have to get them to bed earlier’, or pack lunches or lay out uniforms the night before. We’re not calling just to get on your case, but because we really care and want to see your child here,” she adds.

The school also makes the collective impact of individual attendance transparent to students. Every day that a whole class is present, it is a cause for celebration—perhaps a snack or additional free time that can mean a lot to students. “We make it clear to the kids that it is a very good thing when all of you are here.” 

Over the course of months, collective action broke the habit of consistent school attendance for millions of American students, including some of ours. Rebuilding that habit is essential—not just for the sake of the students we are so happy to see every day, but for our communities as a whole.