“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. 


One Key to Post-Pandemic Educational Progress: Patient Urgency

Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee shared the following with Partnership leaders and teachers as we launched the 2022-23 school year:

As we start this school year, two realities are abundantly clear. The challenges Partnership students face are real, and they’ve gotten worse over the past two and a half years. For example, the third-grade students we welcome this year have really never experienced a “normal” school year, unaffected by covid, fear, quarantine, or more. 

We know from national data and our own experience that this has taken a toll, both academically and mentally, particularly for students in the low-income communities we serve. So we know that our students don’t have a moment to waste. 

At the same time, we also know that the pace our educators and school leaders have maintained over the past two and a half years isn’t sustainable. Catholic educators across the country have been doing heroic work to serve our students and communities since March 2020, and they have literally changed the conversation about what’s possible. A weary nation can see just how important urban Catholic schools are to the fabric of American K-12 education thanks to the tireless efforts of Partnership educators and others.

Yet the feeling of frenzy has to end. It is not sustainable, and it’s not good for us, for our teachers, or for our students.

So as we launched the year with an eye toward creating a new normal for us and for our students, one theme resonates strongly: “patient urgency.”

MCHR Principal Trista Rivera and a new student on the first day of school.

The idea is actually drawn from one of our amazing Partnership teachers and leaders, Fiona Chalmers. Last year, as she thought about what our students needed from us, she described a mindset of “patient urgency.”

As we considered this summer what exactly goes into patient urgency—and how it is different from frenzied action—we came to think of it this way: it is time for us as educators to shift from being Ninja Warriors to becoming tightrope walkers.


Ninja Warriors v. Tightrope Walkers

If you have seen the television show American Ninja Warrior, then you know that it features athletes navigating insane obstacles without falling. The trickiest obstacles often require balance, like this one:

Most contestants find that speed is their friend for such challenges. Going fast and hard may not be pretty, but it keeps the momentum moving forward and prevents them from falling.

Tightrope walkers, conversely, absolutely do not run. The consequences of falling from most tightropes are catastrophic, and that changes everything about the strategy of those who do it. 

It doesn’t just take guts to get across a thin wire stretched between two buildings; it takes planning, preparation, and a thorough understanding of the physics of the human body—realities like one’s center of gravity relative to the wire and the need to increase rotational inertia—because apparently, the wires used it tightrope walks tend to spin, as if there weren’t enough other challenges involved.

All the clear vision, planning, and practice can, evidently, turn a potentially stomach-churning activity into something far calmer. Philippe Petit, who walked a wire strung between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, recounted that “very slowly as I walked, I was overwhelmed by a sense of easiness, a sense of simplicity.”

That is what we ask of our Partnership leaders and teachers: to walk into each day with such patient urgency that they and their students experience a feeling of calm simplicity, one that can only be borne of purpose and planning.


True v. False Urgency

As Harvard business professor John P. Kotter, author of A Sense of Urgency, explains, “True urgency is relentlessly sensible.” It avoids both complacency and anxiety and comes from deep determination. And it is characterized thoughtful, relentlessly focused action. The distinction between true and false urgency is key to our progress.  

So how do our school leaders move their facilities forward with true and patient urgency? We believe two tasks are central to leading with patient urgency:

  • Defining success—measuring progress toward goals that emerge from a shared picture of excellence, and clarifying expectations for planning, preparation, and collaboration.
  • Focusing efforts on the most important things, and working relentlessly to eliminate or delegate activities that are time-consuming and distracting.

Likewise, teachers can embody patient urgency in their classroom by focusing intentionally on a small, key number of moves that we already see many Partnership teachers using, including:

  • Expectations and routines that are taught and reinforced until students internalize them, freeing them—and their teachers—to focus on important lesson content;
  • Teacher planning and decision-making, so important aims remain fixed and clear even as teachers make choices of learning activities in real time, based on evidence of student understanding;
  • Warmth and rigor, manifested in classrooms where every student comes to believe that high expectations and hard work are simply “the way things are done around here.” 

Throughout the year, we will refine our shared understanding of these moves, practicing our own “rage to master” as our network team supports leaders and teachers in this pivotal time.

Creating a mindset of urgency requires more than a call-to-action, and sustaining it so that our students grow and flourish compels us to do something different than merely getting busy. By making our urgency patient, deliberate, and aligned with a clear picture of excellence, we believe that both our students and our educators can embrace the fresh start that this school year provides.

St. Charles Borromeo Nearly Doubles Its Enrollment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Partnership Names Four New Executive Principals

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

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

Crucial Voices

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

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

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

A Climate of Trust

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

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

A Spirit of Collaboration

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

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

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

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

A Diversity of Perspectives

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

“They did it! We did it, together.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so are we.