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One Year into the Partnership, Two Cleveland Principals Reflect

Nancy Lynch and Rachael Dengler have had an even greater adventure this year than most school principals. Not only were they navigating Archbishop Lyke and St. Thomas Aquinas Schools through the pandemic, but they steered the schools through their first year as Partnership Schools.

In previous Posts, we have talked about some of the changes their schools underwent in joining our network: the facilities upgrades, carried out with the dynamic leadership of Cleveland’s own Ozanne family; the dramatic increase in enrollment; and the implementation of core Partnership academic practices, like a longer school day and knowledge-rich curricula.

But as Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee has shared in the past, the Partnership is even more a mindset than it is a model. As a result, some of the ways in which being part of the network affects the work of a school are harder to encapsulate in the details of a particular program. Having just transitioned into the Partnership, Nancy—who has been a principal for 12 years, and leads Archbishop Lyke—and Rachael, first-year principal of St. Thomas Aquinas—have unique insights into that mindset that we seek to learn from. So we asked them to share what they noticed most about how their schools and their roles changed as they joined the network this year.

There are four dimensions of their Partnership work that they identify as most transformative:

1. Root beliefs

Nancy: It’s been a complete culture change. Before we discerned our core values and root beliefs with Christian before the school year started, I never had core values or root beliefs we could articulate or use.* If we had policies, it was because I said so.

Rachael: Now we have conviction and reasons behind decisions. We’re not settling; if what’s happening doesn’t match the root beliefs—the quality of the teaching doesn’t show we can do hard things, or the behavior of the students doesn’t reveal that our students are made in the image and likeness of God—we’re going to change it. We’re not going to settle for it.

Nancy: It’s a big mindset change—and I see the biggest shift in admissions. Before, if a student who applied to us had been asked to leave another school, we mostly said no. But because God created us for greatness, and we can do hard things, now I ask: what is it that I and my teachers can do to make it work for that child here?

2. Thought Partnership

Rachael: You are not alone; you always have a thought partner. So we have the ability to make real change because it’s not just one leader doing the work. I have people at the network team who challenge and support my decisions.

Nancy: Are there times when I’m frustrated because I used to make some of these decisions on my own? I sure am. Like the handbook—I thought I knew our population best, and then the network team challenged my thinking on some of the rules. I used to just pick up the phone when I needed to close school for snow; now I have to explain why every time.

But I know now that I can stand behind my decisions. Significantly, the challenges of living up to our root beliefs and thought partnering have made me more confident. I’m challenged, but I’m also given the support and the assistance. As a result, I’m helping my teachers be more confident and become better.

Archbishop Lyke Principal Nancy Lynch, helping a student find his greatness.

3. Capacity to Change

Rachael: The people who approve of changes are ones who want to make change. And things have purpose; it’s easier to make things better when you have a reason. Our passion for change comes from the root beliefs.

4. Root beliefs

Nancy: I sound like a broken record, but those core values and root beliefs are everything. I feel better and stronger as a leader with them.

Rachael: One of my teachers was talking today about our belief that we are better together. She said that her class started recognizing when someone wasn’t there; they worried about who wasn’t there. And they are third graders. So in Ms. Robinson’s class, they started to do what she does—welcome each other by name during breakfast. We believe we are always learning, and now we’re learning from each other; saying good morning is becoming a norm because we learned it from the third graders.

Another example of how we are already seeing that the root beliefs really are what we believe, and shape what we do: Ms. Kuch, one of our middle school teachers said, “the other teachers are looking out for me. Nobody has a bad day alone in this school.” It’s because we act like we believe are better together.

Nancy: Ms. Binns-Simmons in first grade says “hello, how are you today?” To all of the first graders, because each one of us is unique, and that’s how you make people feel important. And a first grade mom—Ms. Boykins, who is also our PE teacher—says her son Walter now says “hello, how are you today?” outside of school, at the store; not because he’s super-outgoing, but because he assumes that’s how you talk to people. We’re working on that kind of thing deliberately, and it’s happening, because excellence happens on purpose.

St. Thomas Aquinas-Cleveland’s Scott Wylie, with three students who cleaned the classroom when he was away.

Rachael: I’ve seen how much culture affects the effectiveness of our teaching. The culture has to come with us into next year; that’s the whole point. Everybody wants a break–but everyone is also fired up for what we’re going to do next year.


*Archbishop Lyke School’s faculty and leadership discerned the following root beliefs:

  • Each one unique and better together.
  • God created us for greatness.
  • We can do hard things.
  • Excellence happens on purpose.

St. Thomas Aquinas School’s root beliefs are:

  • We are made in the image and likeness of God.
  • We are better together.
  • We are always learning.
  • We can do hard things.