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How We Work: Steering Between School Management Cliffs

Crises, painful though they are, can reveal both the value and the limitations of our organizations’ structures–and, unlike “normal times,” they can do so vividly and urgently enough to prompt changes we wouldn’t otherwise consider. So this tumultuous summer can be a good time for networks like ours and school systems to consider whether our organizational principles and structures help or hinder our efforts to meet the challenges we face.

Our team at Partnership Schools knows we don’t have all the answers when it comes to school systems and structures. In fact, we owe our existence to the idea that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. But we do have this advantage: urban Catholic schools have been in crisis mode for years. So we’ve been confronting the hard facts that do-or-die moments can expose about organizational frameworks ever since we started our work. And because Catholic schools and the structures that manage them—like ours—function on a shoestring, we have to be intentional about how we do the work; we cannot afford any other approach.

This quick look at our organizational framework is part of a periodic series of Partnership Posts this summer in which we will discuss different aspects of how our team frames the work we do. Our hope is to renew our own intentionality and to generate conversations that could keep school managers like us innovating in diverse ways.

While Partnership Schools borrows strategies from high performing charter organizations, we can’t merely replicate their model, because the financial constraints under which we operate are far more stringent. That’s why we think of erecting guardrails to shield our work from two cliffs we navigate between: excessive school autonomy on one side and overly centralized bureaucratization on the other.


Catholic schools were built to be entirely independent and autonomous—each run by and for the community it served. This model worked well in an era when parishes could support schools financially, when pastors and parish priests were able to provide clear pastoral leadership and vision, and when schools could rely on stable/near-lifetime tenures of its leaders and many of its teachers.

This model has been tested in the modern era for several reasons. Most obviously, parishes serving families of modest means are increasingly cash-strapped and unable to support schools to the extent they once were. Additionally, across industries, younger generations change jobs and positions far more frequently, leaving schools with both less financial security and less stable leadership. Finally, the decline in vocations has stretched parish priests to their limit and reduced the amount of time they can spend providing leadership to the school community.

As a network, we can provide a stabilizing vision, direction, and support to overwhelmed school leaders and teachers. We can bring economies of scale, cost savings, and stronger fundraising to financially strapped school communities. And we can free pastors from building-level management, allowing them to focus on pastoral leadership and faith formation. This is what the Partnership has done over the past seven years in New York, and it has produced positive academic outcomes and operational stability crucial for sustaining our schools.


But we face a second danger—one that we must protect against as we work to sustain more schools and strengthen results. As districts and school management organizations grow, stabilize, and move from the “scrappy start-up” phase to more sustainable, mature functioning, we face the challenge of central-office bloat and excessive bureaucratization.

It is a natural instinct for a charter management organization, diocesan schools’ office, or public school district—upon seeing schools struggling with something—to take it upon the central organization to provide extra support. If we set the bar at “excellence,” it’s incumbent on us as network or system leaders to ensure that every school meets or exceeds that bar.

In reality, however, bloated bureaucracies do not—indeed, they cannot—drive excellence. That’s why we see so few “high performing” large districts. And it’s why so many CMOs have struggled to improve quality in step with increases in network spending.


We are also conscious that as we evolve the Partnership model from its scrappy start-up phase to a sustainable organization, we do not have the luxury of ever-expanding central office support. So we must build a model that balances the strength of a clear network vision and direction with the strength of building-level leaders to drive change and push excellence.

To build on our guardrails metaphor: If we are going to steer straight between the cliffs of excessive autonomy and bureaucratization, we need lights to steer by. That’s why we let three principles guide our work: focus, excellence, and support.

  •       Focus: We choose carefully and strategically what projects we will lead from the network level and which we will leave to the schools. And we will only lean in where network leadership can add value above and beyond what school-site leaders can do on their own. Choosing what we will not do is as important as choosing what we will. For example, as we shifted into distance learning this spring, the network academic team took on the weekly and daily challenge of determining what high priority skills and content students would be learning, and identified the lesson materials to teach them–while we left the how up to school teams, who used a variety of tech platforms and daily schedules to deliver instruction.
  •       Excellence: We understand that, every time the network chooses to lead something, we are setting a bar for quality—whether we mean to or not. Therefore, we focus our network leadership on articulating a clear vision, setting clear expectations for results, and ensuring that we have defined—in the clearest terms possible—what excellence looks like at the school site.
  •       Support: Our work in those areas we choose to lead will focus on building school- site capacity. More specifically, we will work with building leaders to ensure that they understand our vision and that they have the tools necessary to translate vision to action.

This mindset of focus, excellence, and support helps us drive results in our schools without building an unwieldy (and likely ineffective) network bureaucracy because it clearly (and narrowly) defines the role we play as network leaders.

Sometimes, our own well-intentioned initiatives cause us to bump up against these guardrails as we swerve toward excessive school autonomy or unwieldy, under-performing centralization. But that is precisely why having these guardrails is useful. We routinely check our ideas and actions to see if they will drive too far toward autonomy or bureaucratization, so we can keep steering as straight as possible amid the twists and turns of educating children through unprecedented times.