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Six New School Leaders, Their Why, and Our Model: Keys to the Partnership Approach

Six dynamic new academic leaders are now well into their first year as deans and principals with us this fall. Our choice to appoint these leaders—and their choice of the Partnership as the network within which they want to lead—reflect their significant experiences and powerful mindsets. They also illustrate two key elements of our approach to unleashing the power of urban Catholic schools.

Here, in the first of two Partnership Posts on our new leaders, we’ll linger on one of those elements: alignment. Later, we’ll explore a second element of our approach reflected in our new leaders: a commitment to community-driven change.


As Partnership Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee recently reflected in the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper, vision-driven leadership is central to how we work. Kathleen clarified, “We are not a network driven by a common sense of ‘command and control,’ but rather a sense of ‘this is our why.’”

On a basic level, that means there is no binder full of Partnership protocols that a new leader can learn and follow. So the qualities of those we choose as leaders are all the more important—and first among them is alignment.

Specifically, we seek leaders who are aligned with our mission, aligned with our model, and deeply committed to the school communities we serve. That’s a tall order, and it is a combination that means our leaders don’t always come to us through traditional channels, like mainstream ed leadership graduate programs.

Mission Alignment

Partnership Schools exists to unlock the potential of each student, and to do so through urban Catholic schools that have propelled generations of students to thrive. We believe every student is made in the image and likeness of God, so enabling young people to pursue excellence has the urgency and significance of holy work for us.

Likewise, serving historically under-served students in an impactful way is deeply personal for most of our new leaders. Joe Dugan, for example, became an educator in part because of his own experience as a struggling student, first pursuing commercial construction out of high school, where he ascended to management roles in that context before getting a Bachelor’s degree and starting to teach. “Kids internalize their struggles,” he explains, “and often not in helpful ways.” His vision of excellence is also deeply personal; as the father of three children, ages 17, 13, and 9, his gut-check for quality is always, “if I’d be OK with my kid in this, then I’m OK with it; if not, then I’ve got to work to change it.” The former principal and president of Cristo Rey High School-Brooklyn, Joe is now principal at Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary School in East Harlem; Mt. Carmel’s former principal, Molly Smith, has transitioned into the role of Assistant Superintendent of Partnership-New York.

Joe Dugan, Principal of Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary.

Amanda Holcolmbe, who previously taught at Sacred Heart-Highbridge and is now taking on the role of dean there, comes at our mission from a similarly personal place. “When I was in school,” she says, “I had teachers who didn’t believe in me. Every kid deserves teachers who believe in them.” Her commitment to being one of those educators reveals itself in the arduous path she took to becoming one: a native of Australia, she wasn’t able to pursue her vocation to teach until after she was married and a mom. She went back to school to get an education degree, studying on nights and weekends for five years to become the teacher she felt called to be even as she and her husband began raising their three children.

Amanda Holcombe, dean at Sacred Heart, on the right—with other members of the 1st grade team last year.

Morris Johnson, who will also serve as a dean at Sacred Heart this year, and John Bacsik, St. Mark the Evangelist’s new principal, both emphasize that pursuing the mission of Partnership Schools is deeply entwined with their faith. Morris, who attended a Catholic middle school, high school, and graduate school, finds being an educator “a constant interrogation of our faith—seeking to know your why, and examining whether you really are living out what you believe.” Meanwhile, John Bacsik discerned a vocation to teach while a student at the University of Notre Dame, entering the university’s ACE teaching fellows program and becoming a second grade teacher in Savannah, Georgia. Cultivating in himself values like humility and service has sustained him in pursuing what he knows to be his calling—even when that calling is one where, as a man, he is a minority in the field of American early elementary education.

St. Mark Principal John Bacsik, with a member of the St. Mark family outside the school.

While each leader’s “why” is individual, it harmonizes with our network’s. Given the way that our model empowers leaders to make decisions, this alignment is indispensable—and far more impactful than any binder of standard operating procedures we could produce.

Model Alignment

Mission alignment, though, is just one element of what makes someone an effective leader within the Partnership network. Alignment with our model is also crucial. As leaders within a network, our principals and deans do not go it alone when it comes to leading and managing their schools, but they aren’t simply middle managers, implementing a network playbook. Morris explains the appeal of leading within the Partnership this way: “There is a sort of a calculus: You have to find yourself in the work; feel a connection to the community and yourself in the work; have the skills and the leverage to do that work; and have the space to be developed.”

New leader Morris Johnson.

There is a complex sweet spot there. Partnership leaders are indeed supported and developed within our network frame, which emerging leaders often welcome. But it also takes a special mix of collaboration and initiative to function as a leader in a climate where we use frank feedback far more often than directives to effect school-site progress. It is a network model that requires versatile school leaders, who can do deep and sometimes vulnerable thought-partnering with network leaders, and then make decisions and own them within the context of their school communities.

Commitment to Community

Finally, Partnership leaders must be deeply committed to the communities we serve. Sometimes, those commitments come from personal connections. Joe Dugan’s family includes graduates of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in East Harlem—so the DNA of the school he leads is entwined with his family’s story. Shameika Freeman—who we will share more about in next week’s Post on our new leaders—has taught at St. Charles Borromeo for over 17 years and grew up across the street from the school.

Those community commitments don’t always come from a sense of personal affiliation, though. Amanda, for example, comes from literally half a world away from the Highbridge community she is now part of and serving. But she sees in her current school community something that resonates as familiar: “It’s like Brisbane: the families want a great education for their kids. They make sacrifices for this private school that is really important to them—” an importance she feels a productive pressure to honor with her work.

Morris Johnson is originally from Baltimore, but the Partnership’s emphasis on community is part of its appeal to him. As an individual with deep experiences in the foster care system, he found early in his life that schools can provide stability. Schools like Sacred Heart can “make a big difference, not just academically, to having a student feel a level of confidence and value”—and the work of cultivating a school community’s ability to grow such relationships is central to what leadership means to him.

A Crucial Combination

We’ve found over time that all three elements of alignment—with our mission, our model, and our communities—are keys for leaders to thrive in Partnership Schools. This doesn’t make for a simple hiring process. And as we’ll discuss next week, it is one of the reasons why cultivating leaders from within our school communities—leaders like Shameika, Kelly Quinn, and Patricia Jimenez—isn’t just practical; it is deeply entwined with how we believe unlocking the potential of our schools happens.