Fathers at St. Thomas Aquinas Are Helping Students Thrive—and Each Other

On any given school day this spring at St. Thomas Aquinas School on Cleveland’s east side, you can look down the hall and see something that may not be a common sight in other elementary schools: dads. 

“I love getting up every morning and coming here,” Ricardo Richmond explains. You’ll see him do for all sorts of students in the hall what he does for his twin daughters at home: give a high-five, help a student learn to tie a loose shoelace, or listen to a young person who is having a frustrating day. You’ll see Jeff Allen do the same many afternoons, along with a handful of other dads. Mr. Allen also has two daughters at the school, but they are not the only reasons why he is there. “Every kid here is mine through God,” he explains.

Helping all God’s children at St. Thomas Aquinas “down the right path” is the mission of these fathers. In late winter, they answered a call from the school’s dean, Tali Collins, for dads who might be willing to spend time at the school during the day—”not to be scary,” she explains, but “to walk the path of excellence with students.” The school, commonly referred to as “STA” by members of the community, calls the dad’s group “STAnd Together.” Mr. Richmond and Mr. Allen have stood together with the students almost every day since. 

As volunteers, they join in the work that another St. Thomas dad—Alex Afzal—does daily in his work as the school’s operations manager, who interacts with students and parents daily. “I think every school should have a stronger male presence,” Mr. Afzal says—and he acts on that belief by working at his children’s school. 

St. Thomas fathers with Academic Dean Tali Collins.

Middle schoolers King and Elijah explain what all three fathers do. “They check on you. They really care. They listen.” Elijah explains that a frustrating comment from a fellow student the day before “got my emotions a little out of control,” and King encouraged him to go talk with Mr. Richmond, who “made sure I was OK.” And just knowing they are cared for by men in the community who model concern for others has had an impact that King notices: “it’s quieter in the hallways”—and Elijah adds, “more peaceful.” 

Mr. Richmond and Mr. Allen make it clear that the nurture they are providing is far from what they experienced as children. “The streets raised me,” Mr. Richmond explains, “not parents or school.” Mr. Allen reflects frankly that his early years as a dad were not ones he’s proud of—which makes the second chance that he has to raise his stepdaughters and help their classmates all the more important to him. 

It is their imperfections as much as their skills that drive Mr. Allen and Mr. Richmond to show up as dads at the school every day. “I want my children to go where I am going, not where I have been,” Mr. Richmond says candidly.

“I am in the healing process,” Mr. Allen adds. “And that’s where our power comes from.” He also shares that spending time with other dads at St. Thomas has helped him develop a few new approaches. “I’ve learned from Richmond here,” he says with a grin; “he’s good at calming kids down.” 

Having parents roaming the halls might create challenges to school culture, rather than reinforcing it. But Dean Tali Collins was clear with the dads about the value they bring, and the dads have embraced the spirit of collaboration that inspired her to reach out in the first place. “We can’t overshadow the teachers,” Mr. Allen explains. “We’ve got a lot of humility in our walk here.”

Having your dad in the hallway might also be unwelcome for some children, and Mr. Richmond’s daughter Amanda admits that at first, “I was embarrassed” to have him at school so often. But now she and her sister Chloe—along with Mr. Allen’s stepdaughters Releesha and Theresa—agree that it “feels good” to watch their dads help others.

Mr. Richmond, the hard-working single father of twin girls, does not hesitate to explain that “God blessed me” with his children, “and being able to sacrifice for other people’s children in the school while mine are watching” is an added blessing. All three hope similar models of father involvement can spread to other schools.

It is the true spirit of partnership—of parents, educators, and supporters coming together to give children what none of them alone can provide—that gives our schools their power. While that collaboration may look different from school to school—and from decades past at Catholic schools—it is as valuable now at each Partnership school as it was decades ago, when they were first founded by and for the communities they continue to serve. And at St. Thomas Aquinas this spring, it is fathers who are making the community stronger. 

“So Clutch”: Two Cleveland Educators on Partnership Professional Development

Nobody in Major League Baseball hit more home runs in 2022 than the Yankees’ Aaron Judge. Jose Ramirez of the Cleveland Guardians is pretty amazing too. It’s safe to say that Aaron Judge and Jose Ramirez both know how to hit a baseball. 

Still, they both have hitting coaches. More than one, in fact. 

Like Judge and Ramirez, Cleveland’s own Rhonda Rutkowski is not in her rookie season. The middle school English-Language Arts at Archbishop Lyke is a veteran educator. But in the last three years—since Archbishop Lyke joined the Partnership Schools—she’s been getting more professional development than ever before in her career. “And what we’re learning in trainings, we’re doing in class. Not just because Nancy Lynch and Aaron Dukes [the principal and assistant superintendent] will be coming in looking for it, but because it works.”

Archbishop Lyke Middle School ELA teacher Rhona Rutkowski in action.

Professional development and teacher coaching haven’t always been a feature of Catholic education; day after day, teachers have largely been left on their own to figure out what helps students learn. Yet they are at the center of how Partnership Schools operates. 

To drive the kind of growth we know our students can achieve, we provide even seasoned educators frequent opportunities to study best practices, rehearse them with their peers, and  implement them with the support of principals who share a common understanding of what great instruction looks like.

“If we want students to get more out of class, we’ve got to put more in—and we do that by giving teachers the sustained support they need to teach worthwhile material well, every day, to every child,” explains Aaron Dukes, Partnership assistant superintendent.

Joe Manning, a supporter of Partnership Schools in Cleveland and a teacher-turned-lawyer, observed some of the training early this fall and shared a perspective unique to someone who has experienced teaching and another profession. “Teachers can easily feel ‘under-respected’—after all, which “real” professionals have no business card, no office, no phone line, no secretary/assistant, no title?  Arranging a first-class workshop goes a long way toward reminding the teachers that they are professionals with a highly significant mission!”

John Carroll University hosted Partnership Schools’ fall kick-off PD.

Joe added that he observed “a sense of common purpose and unity” emerging among teachers from the four schools. “It takes a lot of planning AND intentionality” to achieve that in days of training. 

Just after the Christmas holidays, all the Partnership teachers in Cleveland were back together for more training. Rhonda and her colleagues focused on what might seem as elemental as swinging a bat: giving clear instructions. 

“If you’re given a tool but don’t know how to use it, it’s no good.”


As St. Thomas Aquinas first-grade teacher Shannon Altenbach explains, giving clear instructions takes a lot more planning than it may seem. She started teaching for the first time in January of 2021—the middle of the first full pandemic school year. “I was handed the scripted reading curriculum, and I thought I could just read it out of the teacher’s guide; I quickly learned that doesn’t work.

“If you’re given a tool but don’t know how to use it, it’s no good. That’s what we’re learning in these professional developments: How to plan. Now, I go through the lesson, sometimes with my principal, and we plan what the focus should be. I plan when I want to cold-call, when I need to check for understanding—those are all steps the training has helped me understand are particularly valuable to do.”

Every lesson in the Partnership moves toward independent practice—a moment when students try a new skill or apply new knowledge on their own—and both Rhonda and Shannon agreed that a lesson is most likely to go awry in that independent practice time. ”When I answer one student’s question, the rest can become disengaged,” Rhonda notes. And it’s not just a matter of behavior management to keep all the students thinking and working independently. 

“That’s why the PD is so clutch,” Shannon explains. “The planning of the lesson up to that point determines whether the students can try things on their own.”

Assistant Superintendent Aaron Dukes leads PD this fall.

Both Rhonda and Shannon appreciated the January professional development’s focus on another simple step: having the aim of the lesson visible to all the students on the board. Rhonda finds it helps focus her students; Shannon notes that “my first graders are just starting to read, so they may not be able to read it yet, but it helps me focus.”

And while they don’t deal with the kind of challenges to focus that a major league batter does—a spinning fastball approaching at over 90 mph while a crowd of tens of thousands roars—they do have lots of factors to take in as they teach. “In a reading skills lesson with nineteen first graders, there might be blending practice, tricky words, letter teams, a word story—and there might also be a child who’s having a bad day and one who needs to go to the bathroom. It can be hard to budget time, so the aim on the board helps make sure I stay focused on the main thing to learn that day,” Shannon notes.

Rhonda adds that the kind of continual improvement she experiences as a result of her investment in the professional development and coaching she receives is one reason why she still enjoys teaching after many years. 

We have more than student achievement to gain from investing in teachers’ professional growth. While teachers may not get the kind of adulation or compensation professional athletes get, if they share the same “rage to master” their craft that drives even experts like hall-of-fame bound athletes to keep learning—and they get the support they need to continually grow that mastery—then they may be more inclined to persist as teachers, at a time when our nation needs good educators more than ever.