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. 

“So Clutch”: Two Cleveland Educators on Partnership Professional Development

Nobody in Major League Baseball hit more home runs in 2022 than the Yankees’ Aaron Judge. Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Guardians is pretty amazing too. It’s safe to say that Aaron Judge and Jose Ramirez both know how to hit a baseball. 

Still, they both have hitting coaches. More than one, in fact. 

Like Judge and Ramirez, Cleveland’s own Rhonda Rutkowski is not in her rookie season. The middle school English-Language Arts at Archbishop Lyke is a veteran educator. But in the last three years—since Archbishop Lyke joined the Partnership Schools—she’s been getting more professional development than ever before in her career. “And what we’re learning in trainings, we’re doing in class. Not just because Nancy Lynch and Aaron Dukes [the principal and assistant superintendent] will be coming in looking for it, but because it works.”

Archbishop Lyke Middle School ELA teacher Rhona Rutkowski in action.

Professional development and teacher coaching haven’t always been a feature of Catholic education; day after day, teachers have largely been left on their own to figure out what helps students learn. Yet they are at the center of how Partnership Schools operates. 

To drive the kind of growth we know our students can achieve, we provide even seasoned educators frequent opportunities to study best practices, rehearse them with their peers, and  implement them with the support of principals who share a common understanding of what great instruction looks like.

“If we want students to get more out of class, we’ve got to put more in—and we do that by giving teachers the sustained support they need to teach worthwhile material well, every day, to every child,” explains Aaron Dukes, Partnership assistant superintendent.

Joe Manning, a supporter of Partnership Schools in Cleveland and a teacher-turned-lawyer, observed some of the training early this fall and shared a perspective unique to someone who has experienced teaching and another profession. “Teachers can easily feel ‘under-respected’—after all, which “real” professionals have no business card, no office, no phone line, no secretary/assistant, no title?  Arranging a first-class workshop goes a long way toward reminding the teachers that they are professionals with a highly significant mission!”

John Carroll University hosted Partnership Schools’ fall kick-off PD.

Joe added that he observed “a sense of common purpose and unity” emerging among teachers from the four schools. “It takes a lot of planning AND intentionality” to achieve that in days of training. 

Just after the Christmas holidays, all the Partnership teachers in Cleveland were back together for more training. Rhonda and her colleagues focused on what might seem as elemental as swinging a bat: giving clear instructions. 

“If you’re given a tool but don’t know how to use it, it’s no good.”


As St. Thomas Aquinas first-grade teacher Shannon Altenbach explains, giving clear instructions takes a lot more planning than it may seem. She started teaching for the first time in January of 2021—the middle of the first full pandemic school year. “I was handed the scripted reading curriculum, and I thought I could just read it out of the teacher’s guide; I quickly learned that doesn’t work.

“If you’re given a tool but don’t know how to use it, it’s no good. That’s what we’re learning in these professional developments: How to plan. Now, I go through the lesson, sometimes with my principal, and we plan what the focus should be. I plan when I want to cold-call, when I need to check for understanding—those are all steps the training has helped me understand are particularly valuable to do.”

Every lesson in the Partnership moves toward independent practice—a moment when students try a new skill or apply new knowledge on their own—and both Rhonda and Shannon agreed that a lesson is most likely to go awry in that independent practice time. ”When I answer one student’s question, the rest can become disengaged,” Rhonda notes. And it’s not just a matter of behavior management to keep all the students thinking and working independently. 

“That’s why the PD is so clutch,” Shannon explains. “The planning of the lesson up to that point determines whether the students can try things on their own.”

Assistant Superintendent Aaron Dukes leads PD this fall.

Both Rhonda and Shannon appreciated the January professional development’s focus on another simple step: having the aim of the lesson visible to all the students on the board. Rhonda finds it helps focus her students; Shannon notes that “my first graders are just starting to read, so they may not be able to read it yet, but it helps me focus.”

And while they don’t deal with the kind of challenges to focus that a major league batter does—a spinning fastball approaching at over 90 mph while a crowd of tens of thousands roars—they do have lots of factors to take in as they teach. “In a reading skills lesson with nineteen first graders, there might be blending practice, tricky words, letter teams, a word story—and there might also be a child who’s having a bad day and one who needs to go to the bathroom. It can be hard to budget time, so the aim on the board helps make sure I stay focused on the main thing to learn that day,” Shannon notes.

Rhonda adds that the kind of continual improvement she experiences as a result of her investment in the professional development and coaching she receives is one reason why she still enjoys teaching after many years. 

We have more than student achievement to gain from investing in teachers’ professional growth. While teachers may not get the kind of adulation or compensation professional athletes get, if they share the same “rage to master” their craft that drives even experts like hall-of-fame bound athletes to keep learning—and they get the support they need to continually grow that mastery—then they may be more inclined to persist as teachers, at a time when our nation needs good educators more than ever.

Partnership Educators Explain the New Urgency Around How Students Learn to Read

Last week, Governor Mike DeWine proposed that the state ban a range of reading curricula and provide $129 million for materials and teacher training to support a switch to the “science of reading.” His announcement comes amid a national awakening about reading instruction; for example, last winter New York Mayor Eric Adams and Schools Chancellor David Banks bluntly announced that when it comes to reading, many of the city’s public schools are “teaching wrong.” And ranked amid the 100 most popular podcasts this winter is “Sold a Story,” American Public Media’s exploration of how millions of American children receive reading instruction that does not align with what evidence suggests is effective.  

For the last decade, Partnership Schools have used the kind of curricula that DeWine, Adams, and others now advocate for. So Partnership educators have unique insights into its efficacy—and into why it has taken until 2023 for a groundswell of support to emerge for it.

Phonics and More

“Our words are composed of sounds. When you really master putting those sounds together, then reading takes off,” explains Lisa Marynowski, a veteran first-grade teacher and dean of the Early Childhood Education Campus at Metro Catholic School in Cleveland. The crucial role of phonics as foundational to reading comprehension has been a settled point for decades, and most reading curricula now include phonics to some degree.

But other practices with no basis in research persist. Three-cuing is one such strategy, where children are encouraged to use pictures and context to figure out meaning. Instead, Partnership Regional Superintendent Molly Smith explains, “We want students to build knowledge and understanding of the world around them based on the text in front of them, not on strategies that take them out of the text.”

The amount of phonics instruction that students receive can also be problematic, as reading expert Tim Shanahan notes. At Metro Catholic, Lisa has definitely noticed a difference this year as her school joined the Partnership and began using Core Knowledge Language Arts, a curriculum which adopts a more intensive pace to phonics instruction than what she had used before. As a first-grade teacher, “I was lucky if we got to ‘long a’ at this point; they are doing ‘ou’ now. And they are reading!” She relates the story of a first grader who recently walked up to her teacher and read a Partnership t-shirt that said, “Go Slow to Go Fast.” Proud of reading the words by herself, she turned to the teacher and asked, “Wait—what does that mean?”

Indeed, decoding words doesn’t mean we understand their meaning. That’s one of the reasons why knowledge-building is an important part of research-based reading curricula like those our schools use. As Molly explains, “a base level of content knowledge enables you to absorb more” when you read new material. Someone reading “The O’s beat the A’s 3-2 in the 10th” will understand that sentence more readily if they know Major League Baseball teams, for instance. 

“The Aztecs were hard,” Lisa explains, referring to a recent unit of study in first grade. The emphasis on content knowledge is new for her and her colleagues at Metro as they joined the Partnership this year, and it is definitely a challenge—but one she sees already bearing fruit. For example, students in first grade also learn in English-Language Arts about the three major monotheistic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—and in a recent religion class, a student recalled that Christianity emerged from Judaism. 

“That’s why I teach,” Lisa explains. “I love it when it all clicks together. Once the light comes on and they realize what they know and how they can apply it, that light stays on—and they crave knowing more.”

Scientific research on learning to read supports other practices as well, such as the use of appropriately complex texts supported by instruction that enables all readers in a class to access them. Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee explained in a series of blog posts over a decade ago that “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.” Those scaffolding techniques are at the core of much of the professional development Partnership teachers now receive.

Why Now?

If research has clearly pointed to such strategies as ample phonics and knowledge-building for over a decade, why are they only now gaining such prominence in national conversations? Molly Smith agrees with the Sold a Story podcast’s observation: “For all the downsides of kids needing to learn from home during the pandemic,” she explains, “the upside was that parents saw the complexity of learning to read for the first time. Before, when they were just reading at home with their children at night, they may have seen struggles but not understood why they were happening.” 

She adds, “curriculum is a business, and often profits come first, ahead of kids. For parents, that is infuriating. The only way it changes is if the consumer changes–from the school to the parents. Parents are participating more enthusiastically around the question of what curriculum our children are consuming, and in this case, they are advocating for a curriculum that works.” 

For more on the research behind the reading curricula Partnership Schools use, click here and here; you can access the Sold a Story podcast through most podcast apps. 

Partnership Superintendent Briefs Congress

This week is Catholic Schools Week. In Catholic elementary schools, it can feel a lot like homecoming week does in high schools: it may involve both Masses and wacky dress-up days, prayers and celebrations. That has definitely been the case in our schools over the last few days. 

Students from Sacred Heart in the Bronx celebrate Decades Day, just one of the school’s celebrations during Catholic Schools Week.

It is also an occasion for noting the significance of Catholic schools in the larger landscape of American education. And when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops sought to brief Congress on that front this week, they asked Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee to share that message. 

Kathleen shared: 

If you take nothing else away from our time today, I want to leave you with two things I believe to be true:

First, Catholic Schools have a track record of success that goes back nearly 200 years. And as we consider how we can address the nationwide, post-pandemic student achievement crisis, the system of Catholic schools has the foundational strength and the infrastructure we need to scale quality options for students. 

Second, as we continue to unpack the national response to COVID, one clear takeaway is that American schoolchildren need truly diverse options—with funding streams that are far more directly tied to parent feedback. Parents need to be empowered with real options, particularly in moments of crisis. 

What the U.S. system of Catholic schools is—and isn't

  • Catholic schools are mostly independently operated schools sponsored and run either by a local parish or by a religious order. 
  • As of last year, there were nearly 6,000 schools serving about 1.7 million students, roughly 15% of whom qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. 
  • By the numbers, America’s Catholic schools constitute the largest non-public school system in the world. Yet it also operates in a deeply decentralized and community-driven way.
  • Between the early 1970s and 2021, more than 4,000 Catholic schools closed—the vast majority of which were K-8 schools in urban areas serving under-resourced communities.
  • Of the 1.7 million students in Catholic schools today, roughly two-thirds attend K-8 schools.
  • Many Catholic schools serve more non-Catholic students than Catholic students. In our own Partnership Schools in Cleveland, only 9 percent of our students are Catholic. In New York, 53 percent are.

I like to quote the late James Cardinal Hickey, former Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Washington who said: “We educate our students not because they are Catholic, but because we are.” That is particularly true in the urban Catholic schools that serve the most vulnerable students.


Catholic schools stood out in the pandemic.

In March 2020, Catholic schools, particularly those in large urban areas, were among the first to close when the threat of the pandemic loomed large. For instance, the Archdiocese of New York announced its intent to close in March at a time when then-Mayor deBlasio was still saying that public schools would remain open.

Then, they were among the first to reopen in fall, 2020. 

Catholic school reopening wasn’t due to a large, centralized decision or push from above. Rather, this was the result of hundreds of local diocesan and school leaders responding to the particular needs of their communities.

While I want to be cautious not to draw a bright causal line, the data from the Spring 2022 NAEP test shows extremely strong performance for students in Catholic schools. On every NAEP test, students in Catholic schools were #1 when compared to the 50 states. That’s even more impressive is that these results held even when disaggregated by subgroup. 

A Catholic school education welcomes all and serves them well. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this strong, student-focused and community centered leadership led to significant enrollment gains for Catholic schools. 

As the NCEA reported, last year, nationwide Catholic school enrollment increased for the first time in 20 years. This even as public school enrollment took a hit—declining even more significantly in districts that remained closed than in those that were able to open more quickly.

We experienced this demand first-hand across our 11 Partnership Schools, where we saw a 40% increase in enrollment in the first year of the pandemic in Cleveland and an 18% increase across the first and second year in New York City.

Taken together, these data point to two conclusions:

First, that American children are well served when we work to support and sustain a thriving Catholic school sector.

And second, that when parents are given a choice—particularly in times of great need—they seek out Catholic schools.


Ensuring that every parent is empowered with real educational choice

Central to this discussion is the question of whether the government can or should direct scholarship money to parents to use for a faith-based education for their child.

Of course, leaving aside the fact that federal funds do flow to religious schools for a host of reasons—Pell Grants for college students, COVID relief money that we have been so grateful to be included on, and more. But the idea that faith-based schools should be excluded from publicly funded scholarship programs persists—and it is grounded in the idea that public schools are values-neutral.

The reality is quite the opposite. 

There is no such thing as a values-neutral school. Every day, schools make decisions about what to teach, how to teach it, and what behaviors to punish or revere. These are fundamentally decisions that are guided by values and that help shape students’ understanding of right and wrong, good and evil. 

It’s only very recently that people argued that public schools should be secular. For most of our history, public education was explicitly religious—explicitly Protestant. Children read from the King James version of the Bible; they recited the Ten Commandments. 

In fact, the Catholic school system in America exists because Catholic pastors and parents believed that the public school system was openly hostile to their beliefs. This has been a real fight for generations, and the fights today over curriculum and instruction are grounded in the same arguments that led to the creation of the American Catholic school system more than 150 years ago.

Even if they could be, the idea that public schools should be values-neutral is dangerous. Today more than ever, we need schools that do more than impart knowledge and skills to the students they serve; we need schools that form the backbone of communities and that help students develop the habits of good citizenship. And perhaps the only way to do that well is to ground a school community in a clearly defined mission, vision and purpose—something that faith-based schools in general, and Catholic schools, in particular, have been doing for generations.

Publicly-funded scholarships like those our families have access to in Ohio—crucial for expanding parent choice—are only part of the solution to preserving the legacy of Catholic schools. As Catholic school leaders, we need to do our part to think differently about how to support and sustain once-struggling schools in a new era. 

But Congress can play a huge part in helping, and we are grateful to you for the work you have already done to support nonpublic schools, particularly in the past three years, and we look forward to working together in the future.

“Transforming love and truth”: Pope Benedict on Catholic Education

Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy is multifaceted, and it includes a rich vision for Catholic education. As those of us in the Partnership join Catholics around the world in praying for the repose of his soul, we have a unique way to honor him: as Catholic educators, we can take a moment to see our work as he did.

 A talk that the former pontiff gave in 2012 to teachers and professors in Washington, D.C. touches on many of the themes he returned to often in his career as a scholar and church leader. Among his insights:

  • Catholic schools are places to encounter “transforming love and truth.”

When students really come to know Jesus Christ in our schools, they are invited into a revelation of how they are loved by God, and how beautiful truth permeates creation. It is nothing less than this relationship with “the living God” that should animate our school days.

  •  The truth we teach is more than “factual data.”

Pope Benedict had long defended the existence of objective truth in a world that prefers subjectivity. He also called the truth of the Gospel “creative and life-changing.” He called this “performative” truth—so compelling that encountering it causes us and our students to grow and change.

  •  We should spend more time forming students for freedom.

In his years as a scholar, Pope Benedict grew concerned that the notion of freedom was being “distorted” in contemporary cultures. “Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in—a participation in being itself,” he explained in Washington. There is no true freedom where there is not also faith in God, he asserted, and he reflected that “While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will.”

  • Schools’ Catholic identity comes from how we are, not who our students are.

He declared that a “school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction—do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear?” 

  • “No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”

Pope Benedict heard those voices suggesting either that the Church should concentrate on work other than that of schools, or that Catholic schools have little value for the wider community. He pushed back against both. “Do not abandon the school apostolate,” he urged; “indeed, renew your commitment to schools especially those in poorer areas.”

Our work, then, involves knowing we are loved by God, passing the truth of that love on to our students, letting it change us and the world around us, giving our students the tools they need to freely choose that love, and doing all of this for young people in marginalized communities. Seen this way—as Pope Benedict XVI saw it—the work of Catholic schools is a daily practice of hope in a world that could use more of it.

Celebrating Charism Carriers

When St. Theresa of Avila said that “Christ has no body now but yours,” she was pointing out a remarkable truth: holiness resides within of us and spreads through our actions.

That’s a call to action that each educator in the Partnership answers through their work. Yet in almost every one of our schools, there is a special person or handful of people who take on the work of faith formation in a particular way. And as times and religious practices change, they are evolving new ways to share our timeless faith. The work of two of them—Steve Kuilan at Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem and Sr. Karen Somerville—offers some insights into what it means to be a charism carrier.

Their work couldn’t be more important, given two national trends. Last year, membership in a church community across the U.S. dropped below fifty percent for the first time. Yet Catholic school enrollment rose. Catholic schools have a new opportunity—and a new urgency—when it comes to cultivating the spiritual and religious lives of young people.

Steve Kuilan, Our Lady Queen of Angels, East Harlem

If you ask OLQA’s “Mr. K” what his role is now in his 29th year at the school, he’ll tell you that he teaches 5-8 grade religion and that he is also responsible for preparing students for the sacraments. His role is innovative and crucial because the parish attached to OLQA closed years ago. While some families attend nearby St. Cecilia Church, others’ only contact with a Catholic institution is their child’s enrollment at OLQA. As a result, Mr. K’s faith formation involves a significant effort not just with students but with parents. 

“There is a lot of false, misleading information that many have of the Catholic Church,” he explains. “For example, some families make a lot of assumptions, and for those reasons, their children don’t receive the sacraments. By contacting them and giving them resources within the faith, they begin to feel comfortable about allowing their child to receive the sacraments.” Mr. K adds that how he issues the welcome of the Church to parents is as important as the welcome itself: “I give them the facts in an environment that they know they won’t be judged, and we begin to break the cycle of incorrect information.”

The results speak for themselves: Last year, OLQA—a school with no parish feeding it—had 36 students receive their First Communion, 33 students get confirmed, and 12 students among all grades become baptized. And as principal Liz Nuzzolese notes, alums come back frequently to visit Mr. K, who is godfather and confirmation sponsor to countless students. One even reached out to the school last year from his first year at medical school to thank Mr. K for the impact he has had.

The Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal who are in residence near OLQA certainly support the school in key ways, particularly with prayer services and liturgies. Yet it is Mr. K—a dedicated, faithful layperson, functioning within the nimble, local structure of a single Catholic school—who carries that work into day-to-day, sustained evangelization of students, their parents, and the OLQA community as a whole.

Sr. Karen Somerville, SND, St. Francis School, Cleveland

As a nun, Sr. Karen Somerville may fit a traditional image some have of those who form others in the faith. Yet she has adapted the traditions of this once-German Catholic school community to meet new opportunities, making her work as innovative as it is indispensable.  

Christian Dallavis, Assistant Superintendent of the Partnership in Cleveland, explains that “St. Francis has the most full-hearted student engagement in Mass of any Catholic school I’ve ever seen.” This student engagement occurs even when only a small handful of students in the school come from Catholic families. Sr. Karen began building it when she was the principal and continues the work now, as she remains in residence and partners with current principal Carrie Grace on key faith formation activities. 

As Sr. Karen explains, she came to lead St. Francis with several principal assignments under her belt. When it came time to plan liturgies at her new St. Francis, she says, “I was good at picking songs; I knew what kids like. The kids at St. Francis were a different culture than my country kids or Gates Mills, but they liked it. They sang. I thought things were going quite well.” 

But when a neighborhood preacher came as the guest of an eighth grader to speak at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day prayer service and brought his own musicians with him, Sr. Karen glimpsed a student response that changed her approach. “I stood back and watched, and I knew: this would be the way we do it from now on. The kids were themselves. The kids came home to liturgy that day. The liturgies had been good, but this was better.”

St. Francis’ liturgical participation is about more than catchy tunes. Days before Mass, students not only learn the songs, but they pray with them and reflect on the messages they convey—so that by the time they sing in Mass, students aren’t just singing songs; they are using them to worship with full, age-appropriate understanding. Sr. Karen also attributes two other factors to the vibrance of Mass at the school: Bishop Roger Gries, who not only celebrates Mass with the St. Francis community but embraces its participatory, culturally distinct elements; and the space where they worship, a snug one where individual voices are submerged in the collective, contributing to the sense of togetherness.

As principal Carrie Grace says, “While our Masses are based on tradition, she found a way to combine our celebrations of faith with our rich Black culture. Her understanding, along with her willingness to collaborate with community members, truly brought our Masses and Catholicity alive!”

Carrie defines Sr. Karen’s effectiveness in a way that could be true of Mr. K at OLQA as well: having “an understanding of the values and needs of our community and combining that with the Catholic faith to create a true sense of faith and understanding of God’s love.” 

By sustaining Catholic schools—even in communities that are, at present, predominantly non-Catholic—we preserve opportunities to cultivate that sense of God’s love. This All Saints Day, we celebrate and honor centuries of unheralded saints who have passed that awareness from one generation of children in Catholic schools to another.