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.
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.