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Six New School Leaders—And the Power of Community-Driven Change

When the Partnership’s St. Charles Borromeo School in Harlem needed a new principal last year, we were fortunate that we didn’t need to look far: Natalia Rodrigo had served the school for years, including as assistant principal. The fact that enrollment has increased by over 150 students this year is just one indicator of the impact she is already having on her team.

This year, when the school needed a new dean, we likewise did not need to look far: Shameika Freeman grew up across the street from the school, where she has taught Kindergarten for over 17 years, with a passion for “giving little people the credit they deserve for being smart and loving.” Her devotion to her students is such that, several years ago, she even went into labor at school, having delayed maternity leave to keep teaching.

Our network isn’t always able to elevate two informal leaders within a community to formal leadership positions quite the way we have been able to do at St. Charles. But as we reflect on the power that our seven new leaders bring to their schools this year, the fact that several of them are not new—to their specific school communities or to the Partnership—means that we are honoring a belief baked into the very founding of our network and our model: our faith in community-driven change.

In our last Post, we reflected on how four new Partnership leaders exemplify a key priority in our approach to recruiting and cultivating leaders: alignment to our mission, our model, and our school communities. Now, we reflect on how our belief in community-driven change influences the leaders we seek out and cultivate.

Turn-Around, Not Turn-Over

The Partnership’s “why” for fostering an internal leadership pipeline has its roots in the very genesis of our network—and differs markedly from other reform-minded school management organizations or approaches.

When Partnership Schools formed eight years ago, it did so to have a transformational impact on the lives of students, particularly in historically underserved urban neighborhoods. We intentionally didn’t do that by starting new schools, because we believed in the untapped potential of influential institutions that already existed in our communities: Catholic schools. While the traditional, parish-run governance model was no longer sufficient in the communities we serve to sustain the community-building and social mobility these institutions have fostered for decades—in some cases, for over a century—the schools themselves, we believed, had a power to do even more than they have already accomplished. That power would be difficult to generate through a new school, and it would take years—years that children don’t have.

Thus Partnership Schools exists as a network to unlock the potential of these legacy schools. In our early years, that meant building on the already wide-ranging capacity of their existing leaders. As natural transitions like retirements have occurred, it now involves spreading the impact of dynamic, community-minded teachers beyond a single classroom.

In the larger universe of education reform, too often the approach to school turn-around is a turn-over—a wholesale change of faculty and leadership driven by an assumption that if an institution isn’t doing well, it must be because the people running it are terrible.

That’s not our belief. We know that institutions can fail even when individuals don’t. We believe that the brighter future we seek for students and for urban Catholic schools can be achieved by leaders already present within those communities—provided they are well-cultivated and supported, and that they function within a model that fosters their success. And we believe that our results, including years of sustained and significant proficiency growth, justify our faith in community-driven change.

New Roles, Same Mission

Shameika is so committed to St. Charles—which she calls “a jewel of a school where children of color can receive not only excellent instruction but formation of their souls”—that she is willing to stretch herself professionally to serve it. “I rock as a Kindergarten teacher,” she knows. That’s a great reason to stay in the classroom, replicating the same successes with new students. Yet she reflects: “In order to be your best self, you need to be uncomfortable. I need to be uncomfortable in that way, to help me become a better educator. I’m going to be able to give myself to students from preK-8th grade. And the beliefs I have from teaching Kindergarten can mean something to other teachers.”

Even before school started, the surprises of her new position translated into growth. “I learned so much in 7-8 weeks over the summer. Like arrival and dismissal; there’s so much planning—‘why does PreK get to come and go from the 8th Avenue entrance, for example? If you’re not in it, you wouldn’t think about how much intentionality goes into decisions like that. And I didn’t think planning for that would be amazing.”

Shameika calls St. Charles “a chosen family.” That affinity is reinforced by her decades-deep roots in the neighborhood as well as her pride in representing a crucial element of the school’s Black history: “it’s important that our students see people who look like them talking about God and about love—to know that God is going to love you no matter what, and that He sees you are beautiful when the media makes you out to be a little monster—that’s important in our work.”

As a network, we believe that community-driven change in Catholic schools can happen by other members of a chosen school family, even those who don’t share the same kind of neighborhood roots that leaders like Shameika do—but who have, over time, demonstrated a mix of commitment, humility, and openness that make them impactful long before they ascend to formal leadership roles. Amanda Holcolmbe, who will be serving at Sacred Heart in Highbridge as dean after teaching there, is just such a leader, as we profiled in our last post.

Patricia Jimenez and Kelly Quinn have taken on new roles within the extended Partnership family; both are now deans at different Partnership Schools from the ones where they taught. Tricia taught at Sacred Heart and is now dean of Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary; Kelly taught at St. Mark’s after moving to Manhattan from Boston, where she attended college, and is now dean at Our Lady Queen of Angels. And the new principal at St. Mark the Evangelist, John Bacsik, has served as the director of professional development for our network.

Kelly Quinn at the Partnership Leadership Retreat this summer.

John sought out leadership within a school primarily because of the relationships that form in a school community. “I can take apart a Eureka or CKLA lesson with teachers, but none of that matters without a good relationship with the teachers you are trying to help.” And the deep history of St. Mark’s, as well as the importance of community within “the St. Mark family,” also hold deep appeal for him.

Kelly Quinn speaks to the humility she sees as crucial for becoming a leader within a Partnership community different from the one she has known: “There are times when I can empathize, and times when I need to listen to the stories of others. In Partnership schools, we have a gift of educators who have been in our schools for years; I need to listen and learn from them.”

She adds, “All of our schools have such rich history; we are standing on the shoulders of giants. You celebrate and honor that tradition by asking what is working and by asking ‘what do we as a staff need to work toward?’”

An Ongoing Effort

One of Kelly Quinn’s new colleagues at Our Lady Queen of Angels—sixth grade teacher Kelly Simpson—found that the coaching she received from her dean and principal helped her teach better and made her more curious about the community just outside her classroom door. “The process of being coached helped me see that the whole school needs to be on the same page. What happens in my classroom is so important to grades below and above; it made me want to see the whole picture.” Now, along with Troy Taylor and Spencer Garrett from Mount Carmel-Holy Rosary, she is part of the Remick Leaders Program—a graduate program in Catholic school leadership at the University of Notre Dame that our network partners with.

Together with Remick, the Partnership strengthens the bonds our leaders have within yet another community: the national and even international community of educators committed to driving excellence in Catholic schools in the decades to come.

At the heart of our Catholic faith is a faith in the dignity of every human person. That belief undergirds not only our work to unlock the God-given potential of our students, but to nurture emerging leaders within our schools.