Celebrating the Partnership Principals

It’s National Principals’ Day, and at Partnership Schools, we have particular cause to be grateful for our eleven principals. 

Each of them leads students, parents, and educators toward a vision of academic excellence and powerful community, every day. To lead meaningful academic growth, particularly in a post-pandemic world, is a real accomplishment; to lead a community toward realizing the ideals Christ sets before us is heroic. To do both simultaneously is a wonder to behold, and at each Partnership School, we get to witness principals doing just that, every day.

As a school network, our model is uniquely tied to the vision and leadership of the principals who guide each of our school communities. As Superintendent Kathleen Porter-Magee explains, “Our aim is to ensure that each principal had the support s/he needed to lead effectively. Crucial to our model from the jump, however, was our steadfast belief that we cannot run great schools from the network office. The network team is a support structure; the schools are the engine.” And those engines are fueled and steered by visionary, fearless, innovative educators.

In January, a parent sent one of our principals an email that expresses better than we ever could the impact that our school leadership teams can have and the emotion that can inspire. “I am in tears right now,” the parent said, and then went on to explain that her eighth grader had received a scholarship to the high school of their choice thanks to support from the school leadership. “I really appreciate everything you both have done for me as well as [my] family!! You guys have literally showed us that you are more than just staff at school but our family as well!! I love you guys with every breath of my being…and I will always remain loyal to you all. Every one of my [children] will enter those doors because I know they are safe there it’s home away from home!!!”

So on this Principals’ Day, we honor all that our principals do… 

from all the moments where they share the joy of learning:



Executive Principal Jessica Aybar, St. Athanasius, The Bronx
St. Charles Borromeo Executive Principal Natalia Rodrigo

To the thoughtful consideration they give each student, even on busy days and in tough times:

Executive Principal Alex Benjamin, Immaculate Conception, The Bronx

To all the hours they are fully present to students, from the start of the school day…

Nancy Lynch, Archbishop Lyke School, Cleveland

… to dismissal:

Executive Principal Abigail Akano, Sacred Heart, The Bronx

To the help they provide the youngest and most vulnerable among us…

Trista Rivera, Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary, East Harlem

To the role models they serve as, day in and day out:

Chinique Pressley, St. Mark the Evangelist, Harlem

To the love and support they provide…

Liz Nuzzolese, Our Lady Queen of Angels, East Harlem

To the instructional excellence they lead:

Tali Collins, St. Thomas Aquinas, Cleveland

To the beliefs and values they inculcate:

Rachael Dengler, St. Thomas Aquinas, Cleveland

To the community they cultivate:

Carrie Grace, St. Francis of Assisi, Cleveland

And the example they provide to all of us:

Allison Klutarich, Metro Catholic School, Cleveland

We celebrate our Partnership principals, every day. Thank you for all that you do and inspire.

“Transforming love and truth”: Pope Benedict on Catholic Education

Pope Benedict XVI’s legacy is multifaceted, and it includes a rich vision for Catholic education. As those of us in the Partnership join Catholics around the world in praying for the repose of his soul, we have a unique way to honor him: as Catholic educators, we can take a moment to see our work as he did.

 A talk that the former pontiff gave in 2012 to teachers and professors in Washington, D.C. touches on many of the themes he returned to often in his career as a scholar and church leader. Among his insights:

  • Catholic schools are places to encounter “transforming love and truth.”

When students really come to know Jesus Christ in our schools, they are invited into a revelation of how they are loved by God, and how beautiful truth permeates creation. It is nothing less than this relationship with “the living God” that should animate our school days.

  •  The truth we teach is more than “factual data.”

Pope Benedict had long defended the existence of objective truth in a world that prefers subjectivity. He also called the truth of the Gospel “creative and life-changing.” He called this “performative” truth—so compelling that encountering it causes us and our students to grow and change.

  •  We should spend more time forming students for freedom.

In his years as a scholar, Pope Benedict grew concerned that the notion of freedom was being “distorted” in contemporary cultures. “Freedom is not an opting out. It is an opting in—a participation in being itself,” he explained in Washington. There is no true freedom where there is not also faith in God, he asserted, and he reflected that “While we have sought diligently to engage the intellect of our young, perhaps we have neglected the will.”

  • Schools’ Catholic identity comes from how we are, not who our students are.

He declared that a “school’s Catholic identity is not simply a question of the number of Catholic students. It is a question of conviction—do we really believe that only in the mystery of the Word made flesh does the mystery of man truly become clear?” 

  • “No child should be denied his or her right to an education in faith, which in turn nurtures the soul of a nation.”

Pope Benedict heard those voices suggesting either that the Church should concentrate on work other than that of schools, or that Catholic schools have little value for the wider community. He pushed back against both. “Do not abandon the school apostolate,” he urged; “indeed, renew your commitment to schools especially those in poorer areas.”

Our work, then, involves knowing we are loved by God, passing the truth of that love on to our students, letting it change us and the world around us, giving our students the tools they need to freely choose that love, and doing all of this for young people in marginalized communities. Seen this way—as Pope Benedict XVI saw it—the work of Catholic schools is a daily practice of hope in a world that could use more of it.

Celebrating Charism Carriers

When St. Theresa of Avila said that “Christ has no body now but yours,” she was pointing out a remarkable truth: holiness resides within of us and spreads through our actions.

That’s a call to action that each educator in the Partnership answers through their work. Yet in almost every one of our schools, there is a special person or handful of people who take on the work of faith formation in a particular way. And as times and religious practices change, they are evolving new ways to share our timeless faith. The work of two of them—Steve Kuilan at Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem and Sr. Karen Somerville—offers some insights into what it means to be a charism carrier.

Their work couldn’t be more important, given two national trends. Last year, membership in a church community across the U.S. dropped below fifty percent for the first time. Yet Catholic school enrollment rose. Catholic schools have a new opportunity—and a new urgency—when it comes to cultivating the spiritual and religious lives of young people.

Steve Kuilan, Our Lady Queen of Angels, East Harlem

If you ask OLQA’s “Mr. K” what his role is now in his 29th year at the school, he’ll tell you that he teaches 5-8 grade religion and that he is also responsible for preparing students for the sacraments. His role is innovative and crucial because the parish attached to OLQA closed years ago. While some families attend nearby St. Cecilia Church, others’ only contact with a Catholic institution is their child’s enrollment at OLQA. As a result, Mr. K’s faith formation involves a significant effort not just with students but with parents. 

“There is a lot of false, misleading information that many have of the Catholic Church,” he explains. “For example, some families make a lot of assumptions, and for those reasons, their children don’t receive the sacraments. By contacting them and giving them resources within the faith, they begin to feel comfortable about allowing their child to receive the sacraments.” Mr. K adds that how he issues the welcome of the Church to parents is as important as the welcome itself: “I give them the facts in an environment that they know they won’t be judged, and we begin to break the cycle of incorrect information.”

The results speak for themselves: Last year, OLQA—a school with no parish feeding it—had 36 students receive their First Communion, 33 students get confirmed, and 12 students among all grades become baptized. And as principal Liz Nuzzolese notes, alums come back frequently to visit Mr. K, who is godfather and confirmation sponsor to countless students. One even reached out to the school last year from his first year at medical school to thank Mr. K for the impact he has had.

The Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal who are in residence near OLQA certainly support the school in key ways, particularly with prayer services and liturgies. Yet it is Mr. K—a dedicated, faithful layperson, functioning within the nimble, local structure of a single Catholic school—who carries that work into day-to-day, sustained evangelization of students, their parents, and the OLQA community as a whole.

Sr. Karen Somerville, SND, St. Francis School, Cleveland

As a nun, Sr. Karen Somerville may fit a traditional image some have of those who form others in the faith. Yet she has adapted the traditions of this once-German Catholic school community to meet new opportunities, making her work as innovative as it is indispensable.  

Christian Dallavis, Assistant Superintendent of the Partnership in Cleveland, explains that “St. Francis has the most full-hearted student engagement in Mass of any Catholic school I’ve ever seen.” This student engagement occurs even when only a small handful of students in the school come from Catholic families. Sr. Karen began building it when she was the principal and continues the work now, as she remains in residence and partners with current principal Carrie Grace on key faith formation activities. 

As Sr. Karen explains, she came to lead St. Francis with several principal assignments under her belt. When it came time to plan liturgies at her new St. Francis, she says, “I was good at picking songs; I knew what kids like. The kids at St. Francis were a different culture than my country kids or Gates Mills, but they liked it. They sang. I thought things were going quite well.” 

But when a neighborhood preacher came as the guest of an eighth grader to speak at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Day prayer service and brought his own musicians with him, Sr. Karen glimpsed a student response that changed her approach. “I stood back and watched, and I knew: this would be the way we do it from now on. The kids were themselves. The kids came home to liturgy that day. The liturgies had been good, but this was better.”

St. Francis’ liturgical participation is about more than catchy tunes. Days before Mass, students not only learn the songs, but they pray with them and reflect on the messages they convey—so that by the time they sing in Mass, students aren’t just singing songs; they are using them to worship with full, age-appropriate understanding. Sr. Karen also attributes two other factors to the vibrance of Mass at the school: Bishop Roger Gries, who not only celebrates Mass with the St. Francis community but embraces its participatory, culturally distinct elements; and the space where they worship, a snug one where individual voices are submerged in the collective, contributing to the sense of togetherness.

As principal Carrie Grace says, “While our Masses are based on tradition, she found a way to combine our celebrations of faith with our rich Black culture. Her understanding, along with her willingness to collaborate with community members, truly brought our Masses and Catholicity alive!”

Carrie defines Sr. Karen’s effectiveness in a way that could be true of Mr. K at OLQA as well: having “an understanding of the values and needs of our community and combining that with the Catholic faith to create a true sense of faith and understanding of God’s love.” 

By sustaining Catholic schools—even in communities that are, at present, predominantly non-Catholic—we preserve opportunities to cultivate that sense of God’s love. This All Saints Day, we celebrate and honor centuries of unheralded saints who have passed that awareness from one generation of children in Catholic schools to another.