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The story of Partnership Cleveland–and Rich Clark

How Partnership Schools has come to expand to Cleveland is a story worth recounting–particularly for what it may tell us about pursuing a social justice mission, and one framed by the Catholic faith and its institutions in these changing times. It is a story about recognizing a need for change, of turning disappointment into action, and of the significant power lay people have to advance the work of the Church.

It is also a story best told by Rich Clark, a long-time Catholic educator in Cleveland who is at the center of the work to bring our network there as Founding Director of Partnership Schools, Cleveland. Rich was the first lay principal of St. Ignatius High School, a well-established, 130-year-old Jesuit high school in Cleveland. He left that post in 2003 for uncharted waters: to become the founding president of Saint Martin de Porres High School, Cleveland’s Cristo Rey high school and only the fourth school in what is now a nationwide, 37-school network

Rich, how did you come to be involved in this work?

I left St. Ignatius in 2003, and people said “What are you doing?” They thought I was crazy. I said we are going to start a new school. It was a Gospel call. This–bringing the Partnership to Cleveland–is part of the same call.

To bring education to people who have very few resources is a work of social justice.  It is a special purpose for Catholic schools that are in cities, working with communities who have no other choices. We’ll wait for the big public school systems to change, but in the meantime we  have to do something; 66% of the adult population of Cleveland is functionally illiterate. Not just public schools, but all of us–we can’t let it keep going like this.

Why the Partnership?

At Saint Martin de Porres, we had done a $30 million project to build a new school building, and we were going to abandon the three-story, 1912 grade school we had been renting. The board and I thought: maybe we should start our own elementary school there. We’d really been trying to get some grade school effort going for a while, because we had many students coming to us far behind for college-prep high school.

I networked with a bunch of people–B.J.Cassin, one of the founders of the Cristo Rey Network, the GHR Foundation in Minnesota, and others–and they told me what to look for. One guy said the Partnership Schools in New York are the ones moving the academic needle–you should talk to them.

So I emailed Jill Kafka in 2017, as I was stepping down from being president at Saint Martin de Porres, and came to visit the schools in New York that winter just after a big snow storm.

The schools blew me away–St. Athanasius and Sacred Heart–and we went back to the Partnership office to talk. Jill was pretty straightforward: “What do you want?”

“I want to start an elementary school,” I said.

“Don’t you have schools in Cleveland?” she asked.


“OK,” Jill said; “why don’t you make them better?”

I thought wow, this is really something. I said I think we are going to do a network like this in Cleveland, if I have questions along the way, can I call you to help? Jill said, “Maybe we can do more than help.”

I came back later with a bunch of leaders from our Cleveland schools, and we visited some of the Partnership Schools in New York. And I remember we sat on the tarmac at LaGuardia Airport on our way home, and we agreed–let’s do this.

What were the two years of putting the agreement together like?

We have to respond with a faith that we can do this. In the last two years, my faith that this could happen has been challenged more than once, including our bishop being transferred in the middle of this and getting permission from the Vatican in record ten days’ time. That may not be a miracle, but it felt like one.

It takes a passion to do this. We didn’t go to the diocese saying, isn’t this logical? It may be, but it also takes passion. There is a great need in our society, and Catholic schools can meet it. But if we don’t act soon, one of the greatest assets in our cities will disappear.

Do we want to rebuild these Catholic schools, or let them die? Which side of that do you want to be on?

We are being called. And in a big way, lay people are being called. Jean Baptiste de Lasalle, Ignatius of Loyola, Angela Merici, founder of Ursulines–they were all lay people when they started. And they all answered the call of the issues of their day. It’s the same for us now.

What do you picture St. Thomas Aquinas, Archbishop Lyke, and maybe other Cleveland Catholic elementary schools being like twenty or thirty years from now?

They are high performing schools academically. These schools are the beacon of education. They are supported by public money–by then we will be over the hurdle, like the G.I. Bill and Pell Grants are, where people use public money at private colleges. So we are providing a service there in a cost-effective and academically effective way. They must be effective.

They are also communities centered around faith and love, encompassing all different faiths. They maintain faith by saying, “this is our neighbor; love your neighbor, no matter who they are.”

Who is one of the saints or holy people who inspire your work?

St. Martin de Porres, actually. His father was a Spanish nobleman, his mother was a freed slave; his father abandoned him. He was a skillful healer who used payment from the rich to give to the poor. He became a Dominican–they wouldn’t let him at first because he was multiracial. And he took an ill man to his own bed at the cloister until he was well; when the other friars protested, he said, “It is far easier to clean my sheets than my soul.”

He’s all about “what is the need?”–how could I connect the rich and the poor. And he was so real; he’s often pictured with a broom, because there’s no task too small.

The call that I had to leave St. Ignatius and start St. Martin de Porres High School happened in Peru, where St. Martin de Porres is from.

You’re working now with the Partnership. What’s one thing you love about your work right now, and why?

I am a sucker for kids. I remember walking into one of the schools that’s not yet part of the Partnership; there was a little kid–a first grader maybe. He was drawing–said he likes to draw humans. I asked him how he got to school, and he told me about how early he gets here because his mom works, his grandfather drops him off at seven and he stays in the cafeteria until school starts, then after school he stays again and his aunt picks him up because his mom is still working. His family, like so many of the families I have met in my twenty years of this work, is so tight-knit, so loving.

This is a chance to partner with him to make his life different, and hopefully his kids won’t have to go through the same challenges.