Partnership Schools, a network of nine Catholic elementary schools in New York, New York, and Cleveland, Ohio, is giving immigrant youth from the inner city a chance to learn and thrive in a faith-based and safe environment. Two-thirds of the students are Hispanic and one-third are African-American.
The organization, which started nine years ago, is the vision of a set of donors who wanted to improve struggling Catholic schools in marginalized communities in New York—neighborhoods with limited resources and families with limited incomes. The nine schools are managed under a centralized and independent structure in New York on behalf of the Archdiocese of New York, which still owns the schools.
The funding comes mainly from donors and tuition. In the nine years since its inception, the network has sustained enrollment at a time when dozens of other Archdiocesan schools in New York have closed.
The network-wide Partnership Schools team centrally manages academics, operations, finance, and building maintenance, permitting the schools to focus on teaching the children and supporting the principals and teachers. Principals and administrators work closely together to ensure that issues which may arise in a school are addressed holistically, with common policies and curricula applied across the whole network.
“In many ways, the decision-making is based on the needs of the schools and the students,” said Jill Kafka, Executive Director of Partnership Schools. “We always have an eye on the needs of the youth we educate, as they face obstacles coming from poor and often unstable neighborhoods.”
Providing sufficient funding to help underwrite the costs of the education can be a challenge, according to Ms. Kafka. In New York, eighty percent of the students receive financial support, or scholarships, from the organization. They come from families whose median income is less than $30,000 a year for a family of four. In Cleveland, most Partnership students qualify for publicly funded scholarships that make Catholic education possible for a significantly larger number of children in families with low incomes.
A significant number of students come from mixed-status immigrant households, in which the child is a first-generation US citizen and the parents are immigrants. The organization has worked hard to reach out to immigrant families and help them with legal assistance and other support, if needed. They also have dental exams for families once a year at the schools.
“Sometimes the parents will hand me documents which have nothing to do with the school,” said Abigail Akano, principal of Sacred Heart School, a Partnership school in the Bronx. “We try to help them understand what they need to do and what are the next steps.”
Parents also confide their fear of deportation and the school makes counseling available to them. A large number of families at Sacred Heart are originally from the Dominican Republic.
On occasion, the organization will reach out to an immigrant or refugee family to convince them to enroll their children in one of the schools, according to Ms. Akano.
Rosa was a refugee from the Central African Republic who lived in a shelter and attended a public school in the Bronx. Her parents could not afford to send Rosa to a private school. She was not learning in the public school and was having trouble integrating into it. Partnership Schools reached out to Rosa’s family and helped them fill out an application for Rosa to attend Sacred Heart, backed by a full scholarship. Rosa graduated from eighth grade near the top of her class and will attend a private Catholic school this year.
The organization has made special efforts to assist families during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have helped support mixed-status families who were excluded from a stimulus check, providing them financial support in certain situations—on one occasion to pay for a funeral. They also have increased the amount of financial assistance given to certain students during the pandemic.
Partnership Schools also ensured that all children were provided a computer or iPad at home and helped individual families with internet access and how to use the computer, as needed.
Partnership Schools also has increased the number of eighth graders who are accepted to top New York high schools, like Fordham Preparatory School, Regis High School, and Notre Dame School. The network office helps these inner-city youth, including from immigrant families, navigate the high school application system, advising on which schools are the best fit. The most recent class of Partnership Schools was awarded $3.4 million in four-year scholarships and financial aid to attend those schools.
“We used to call up the local Catholic high schools and pitch the kids to them, asking them to look at their records,” said Ms. Akano. “Now they call us looking for students.”
Shania was always late to school. One day, the principal, Abigail Akano called Shania into her office to ask for an explanation. Akano was concerned that her constant tardiness would jeopardize her academic record. Shania laid out to the principal her morning schedule, which included escorting her two younger brothers to the public school every morning. The principal called Shania’s parents and asked why the two younger children were being sent to a public school. Upon learning from the parents that they could only afford for Shania to attend Sacred Heart, the principal arranged for the two younger children to attend Sacred Heart as well, with generous financial support. Shania is regularly on the honor roll and now has a full scholarship to Notre Dame Girls High School in Manhattan.
Despite the best efforts of Partnership Schools to help children in need, including first-generation and immigrant children, more help is required. “Families of lesser means should qualify for a tax credit or a voucher to send their children to Catholic schools,” said Ms. Kafka. “When more government money, or school choice, can follow the child and allow them private school options, it will be a game-changer.”
Ms. Akano points to the need for summer youth programs, to keep children busy and active while their parents work. Both Ms. Kafka and Ms. Akano support policies that provide clear, timely, and just pathways to citizenship for hard-working parents, reducing the stress faced by some students and families. They agreed that any policy that brings stability to families is good for the students who attend Partnership Schools.
Partnership Schools added two inner-city Catholic schools in Cleveland to the network only a few months ago, giving hope that the organization will continue to grow and rejuvenate Catholic schools in dioceses around the nation. “They called us and needed help and we responded,” stated Ms. Kafka. “It’s been so exciting expanding our work to another city.”
Partnerships Schools is a model organization that could lead to a renaissance in Catholic education, giving hope to thousands of young students in poor communities nationwide.