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A Harlem Educator’s High-Leverage Partnerships

“I did it! I did it!”

This year, when eighth grader Jamila gushed to one of her middle school teachers that she had earned acceptance to the high school of her choice, it was more than the usual music to that teacher’s ears. Chinique Pressley is a veteran educator who will go to great lengths to adapt so that she can support students’ success. A pro at teaching fourth grade, for example, she switched a few years ago to teaching middle school—and she now teaches science, social studies and religion to multiple grades. This year, she also took on another role for the first time: counseling students and their families through the high school application process.

Her students’ success at being admitted to and choosing the best high schools for them underscores two crucial components of the Partnership approach: the centrality of relationships, and the importance of balancing network and school-site initiatives.

Partnership Schools aim to transform students’ lives, so what happens after students leave us at the end of eighth grade is as crucial as what happens each day they are in our classrooms. Choosing, applying to, and affording great high schools in New York City can be complicated and stressful even when there isn’t a pandemic, so we have long supported families through that process.

The ins and outs of the high school process were new to Ms. Pressley this year, but the students are not: she’s taught this particular cohort in both fourth and seventh grade. “I was in tune with them and had a sense of the best setting for each of them,” she says.

Chinique Pressley

Those beneficial relationships extend to parents. “They trust my judgment,” she says, although they also have a familiarity that makes tough conversations easier. “Two pushed back on my suggestions for their children, but we talked about why.” Parents and students submit the applications, not Ms. Pressley, so this level of frank dialogue is crucial.

As we’ve profiled previously, our colleague Stephanie Read manages high school placement for all our New York schools. But we’ve deliberately limited her one-on-one work with students to some, rather than all, of those seven institutions. If Stephanie were to work with every one of the hundreds of Partnership eighth graders, she would not have the bandwidth to foster the relationships that make high school placement support truly supportive—not just a paperwork nudging service.

Stephanie does, though, work with key school-site colleagues at several of our schools, providing educators like Ms. Pressley a framework and sustained collaboration. So we leverage her knowledge of high schools and the process, together with the student relationships that educators like Ms. Pressley have. “I wasn’t aware of how much needs to be done,” Ms. Pressley admits. But Stephanie provided her with the tools she needed, so “it wasn’t overwhelming for me.”

The results tell the story—along with Ms. Pressley’s pride in the students. Just a few examples:

Jamila, that student who gushed over the phone when she got in, “came with the high schools she really wanted. I taught her brother and sister, by the way. When she received that acceptance letter, she said over and over, ‘I did it! I did it! I got into St. Vincent’s—that’s my dream school!’ and she also said, ‘I took your advice; I took my time’” completing all the steps of the application.

St. Mark Eighth Grader Jamila.

Ms. Pressley also shares the story of Kai. You can hear the smile in her voice when she says, “He gave me a run for his money in 4th grade.” But she quickly adds, “now he told his mom that I am his second mom. He was nervous about the test, but he felt like he did his best—and he got accepted at all three of the Catholic schools he was aiming for, and got a scholarship to one of them. It changed his whole perspective about school,” she beams.

Her work on high school placement, she says, “goes back to our core values of hope and service. I believe in them. I have their best interests at heart.” Which is why she also doesn’t hesitate to share the plans of another student. He chose a different school than the one Ms. Pressley suggested might be best for him, but she embraces the reasons for his choice and is as proud of him as the others when she explains that he got scholarship offers from all of his chosen schools.

She’s also proud of two boys who just joined the school in eighth grade. A nun who helped shape Ms. Pressley as an educator, Sr. Katherine Lee, told her, “there is always space for one more child,” and Ms. Pressley was as eager to work with them as she was with students she had known for years.

This week, education news source The 74 Million highlighted new research suggesting that the seeds of finishing college are planted in middle school—and that intensive, personalized support can make a difference long after students have graduated eighth grade. Ms. Pressley calls this kind of support “tough love”—and she’s already busy providing it to this year’s seventh graders and their families as the process begins for them.