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Kathleen Porter-Magee on “The Hundred-Year-Old Start-Ups”

Last week, Eliza Shapiro published an article at Capitol New York that explored the “charter-like” approach the Partnership for Inner-City Education is bringing to its Catholic schools. In many ways, that characterization is true. We are, after all, partnering with some pioneers from the charter world. And we’re implementing many of the best practices that so many of us have learned from the most successful CMOs.

At the same time, though, there is a lot that it misses. We are much more than “charter-like schools”; we’re Catholic schools. And our rich history is the foundation of what we do. Some of the differences are obvious: We can wear our faith on our sleeve and teach values unequivocally. We teach religion. We prepare students for the sacraments. We operate on shoestring budgets.

But there are other differences that have a more subtle—but perhaps more profound—impact on the work that Catholic schools have had on their students and their communities.

For starters, Catholic schools in general (and the Partnership Schools in particular) are deeply rooted in the communities they serve. We call our schools “hundred-year-old start-ups” because as much as we seek to embrace the entrepreneurial spirit of charter schools, we know that we are also stewards of deep community roots that were planted long ago.

Our schools were initially founded to serve Catholic families and students who had been neglected by a traditional school system openly hostile to their faith. One hundred fifty years ago, the only way Catholics in New York City could secure an education for their children was to accept indoctrination in Protestant values as part of an overtly anti-Catholic agenda pushed by the city’s elites. Parishes responded by creating an entirely new and different system of schools that welcomed not just Catholics, but anyone who wanted an alternative to traditional public schools.

This effort often included a special outreach to African American and Latino students, as well as others who had been marginalized. From the beginning, we were a community of outsiders who drew strength from our belief that all students deserve a school that makes them feel welcomed. These parish schools have been heavily subsidized since their founding by the church community so that, as much as is possible, finances aren’t an obstacle to any family who wants a different education for their child.

These are schools born from, nurtured by, and sustained through rich interactions with the communities they serve. It’s hard to tell sometimes where the school ends and the community begins. The schools wouldn’t be the same without the communities. And the communities, as we’ve recently learned from Margaret Brinig and Nicole Garrett’s work in Lost ClassroomsLost Communitiessuffer without the schools.

Something special happens in schools rooted in enduring relationships and timeless values. Far beyond what their initial test scores might predict, students in Catholic schools tend to experience strong and lasting results. They graduate from high school at greater rates, are much more likely to complete college, often enjoy more stable marriages, and are more likely to be civically engaged and give back to their communities as adults.

These are schools with a mission and a lot to offer the communities they serve, but by most standard input measures, our schools would fare badly. We are poorly resourced and spend very little per pupil. Our class sizes are big compared to traditional public schools. Our teachers are paid less than their traditional public and charter peers. And we have far less in the way of flashy technology and “innovation” than you’d come to expect from a high-quality school.

Yet if I’ve learned anything over the course of the past year, it’s this: Looking at Catholic schools only through the lens of what we have come to expect from traditional or charter school models misses much about what makes them special. Yes, they need to improve in some fundamental ways. But that improvement will come by building upon their unique strengths rather than trying to Xerox the habits and practices of high-performing competitors.

Here are two key lessons I’ve learned about how the reform approach in these hundred-year-old start-ups needs to look different:


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