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Loaves, Fishes, and Laptops

In December, Cardinal Spellman High School in The Bronx gave our New York schools a gift that, like the miracle of loaves and fishes, means so much more than the gift itself.

First, a little bit of background on Spellman for those who aren’t familiar with it: It is the kind of hard-working Catholic high school that has been making the American dream happen for diverse families since the late 1950s. It has produced notable alums like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and our very own Partnership Principal Jessica (Madio) Aybar. Jessica is unequivocal about what makes the school special: “Spellman has great teachers,” she says. “They are a huge reason I became a teacher.”

We are proud that each year, some of our Partnership Schools’ graduates go on to attend Cardinal Spellman. Our friendly institutional relationship with them came in handy in November, when we realized we could use some help with one of the many “only in a 2020-21 pandemic” problems that schools face right now.

Since COVID began, we’ve added hundreds of new iPads to our supply of Chromebooks so that our students learning from home all have devices to use, while our in-person students also have the technology they need for science and other classroom uses. But when it came time for all of our eighth graders to take the test for admission to Catholic high schools—now administered online to all students on the same day—we knew our supply of computers just wasn’t enough to get the job done that day.

We reached out to Cardinal Spellman to see if they had any devices we could borrow, and they came through with true generosity of spirit. It sounds simple to borrow computers; this year, though, has posed particular challenges not just for an institution’s supply of devices but for the people who deploy them, look after their upkeep, and provide tech support for hundreds of students and teachers each day.

So it wasn’t just carts full of devices Cardinal Spellman offered us; it was the precious resource of its IT crew’s time, particularly Director of Technology Robbin Harrison, herself a Spellman alumna and a former police officer to boot. Dan O’Keefe, the President and Principal of Cardinal Spellman, explains her role this year quite simply: “She has been one of the most important people to keep our school going during the pandemic; we haven’t missed a single day of instruction, and that’s thanks to Robbin.”

We reached out to her again a few weeks later to see if we could borrow the computers in January, when planned remote learning for all after the Christmas holidays and new MAP testing for all students would again increase our computer usage.

This time, Cardinal Spellman didn’t just loan us the computers; they sent us word that the devices were now ours to keep. For students to have their own Chromebook while learning remotely is game-changing. And going forward, freeing our school staff of some juggling when it comes to days with high tech use means they have more time to focus on learning itself.

Dan O’Keefe brushes off the uniqueness of his institution sharing with our schools in this way. “This is what Catholic education is all about!” he declares, adding that he sees our elementary schools and his high school as “partners in promoting high academic standards, personal responsibility, and a strong spiritual foundation. The students at the Partnership Schools have the drive and determination to succeed.  We are glad to be able to support that spirit.”

The Bible story of the loaves and fishes, in which Jesus feeds more than five thousand with an initial supply of five loaves and two fish, is, of course, about a miracle. But it also suggests a powerful mindset that we are called to embrace: a faith that we really do have enough to share.

The apostles believed in Jesus so much that they followed him around and had all seen him perform miracles; yet in this moment, they are so focused on what isn’t there that they seem to forget the power he has. In John’s Gospel account, Phillip zeros in on how much money it would take to feed the crowd, and Andrew emphasizes how meager the food on hand is compared to the need. The Gospel records these men of faith focusing in that moment only on the challenges—not their resources.

In uncertain times, when scarcity looms, it can be easy to pull back from seeing plenty where it still exists, and it can be natural to want to cling to what we have. The team at Cardinal Spellman did just the opposite. The Chromebooks they’ve shared with our schools are really helpful; more significantly, the open-heartedness they embodied reminded us, as Dan O’Keefe says, what Catholic education is all about.

Beth Blaufuss is Vice President for Strategic Initiatives for Partnership Schools.