In recent years, many Catholic grade schools have had to shut their doors due to funding issues. This trend has accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Partnership Schools, a network of nine elementary and middle schools in urban areas of New York and Cleveland, is trying to stem the tide of Catholic school closings. Their network is taking a unique approach to funding, relying heavily on philanthropic support and keeping costs down, while maintaining high-quality education. In this episode, we hear from Jill Kafka, the executive director of Partnerships Schools, and Abigail Akano, principal of Sacred Heart School in the Bronx, one of the schools in the Partnership network. They describe how the network works, how they seek to include immigrant students and their parents, and why they created an emergency COVID-19 assistance fund to support families in their network.
Emma Winters: Welcome to CMSOnAir, the podcast on migration and refugee issues, brought to you by the Center for Migration Studies of New York (CMS). I’m Emma Winters, CMS’s Communications Coordinator. This is the third episode of a series, “Accompanying Immigrants in the COVID-19 Era: How Catholic Ministries Are Transforming Successful Programs.” In this episode, you will hear about Partnership Schools, a network of nine elementary and middle schools in urban areas of New York and Cleveland. The network is trying to stem the tide of Catholic school closings—and create a better future for urban students. In a moment, you will hear from Jill Kafka, the executive director of Partnership Schools, and Abigail Akano, principal of Sacred Heart School in the Bronx, NY. They share how Partnership Schools are revitalizing urban Catholic education, how they include immigrant students and their parents, and why they created an emergency COVID-19 assistance fund. Here’s their conversation with Kevin Appleby.
Kevin Appleby: Welcome to both of you.
Jill Kafka: Thanks for having us.
Abigail Akano: Thank you.
Kevin: Let’s talk today about Partnership Schools and the unique model it is and how it serves inner-city youth. Could either one of you give a quick history of Partnership Schools, what the initial idea was, how it has evolved, and how it is serving inner city youth? I know that is a lot in one question. An overview of Partnership Schools would be helpful.
Jill: I am happy to launch in. Catholic schools in New York City have had a very long history of serving immigrant communities. There’s also been a long history of support to those Catholic schools. Many donors over the last thirty years have given money to scholarships, to buildings, and to programs that supported those kids and those schools.
I have been working for almost 23 years in supporting Catholic education and working with a set of donors, who saw the system start to decline. Enrollment was going down, and some of the school deficits were going up. This group of donors wanted to make a bigger impact on the system itself. They wanted to do more than just broadly support scholarships for kids. They said, maybe we can get more involved, and go deeper with more targeted support for school.
About nine years ago, we formed a new organization. The whole point was that we wanted to, rather than support the schools, manage schools. So we formed this organization and negotiated a very historic agreement with the Archdiocese of New York and Cardinal Dolan, who agreed — through a service agreement — to allow us full autonomy and authority over this initial set of six schools in exchange for us fully funding the schools and for us owning all the operations, academics, finance, and building management. It was really a unique concept. The church has never given over control of its schools to an outside organization. What is unique about it is we are in a contract for 11 years with the archdiocese. They still own the schools. They are the governance of the school. We are a service provider, so they can fire us anytime if it’s not going well. We can give them the schools back at any time. It’s unique in that we are accountable to them for our results, but we get to make all the decisions.
After we signed the agreement, we switched our organization from being a fundraising and support organization to a school management organization. We hired an amazing superintendent who had experience both in Catholic schools and charter schools. She brought the secret sauce to our success, which has been a really clear picture of excellence, not breaking what was already working in these schools. I am sure Abi can talk about that. We tried to think of these schools as deep-rooted communities with a lot of foundational strength. We’ve tried to help with bringing that picture of excellence, but also a clear path to getting there.
Bringing these schools together as a network, like charter schools do, we were able to then centralize some things and let other things be done on the school level, but really keep everyone on the same page and looking toward the same hopeful set of better results than these schools were having when they were on their own.
Over the last seven years, because of all the support and the strategic ways we supported schools, we’ve been increasing test scores. We’ve gotten kids getting into better high schools. The culture has gotten a lot better in these schools. Enrollment stabilized, and Partnership Schools became a model for the rest of the country. Cleveland came knocking on our door a couple of years ago, and they were interested in what we were doing. They were struggling with some of their inner-city schools. They said, maybe we can partner with you. After a bit of time, and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, we launched Cleveland in a pandemic—just a couple of months ago.
We’re really proud of the fact that we were able to expand at a time that a lot of Catholic schools and a lot of private schools are struggling and may go away. We believe these schools should continue to serve these communities, some of them are 160+ years old. They’ve been a rock in those communities. We know we are trying to address a need for high-quality, accessible, affordable options for parents, especially those who want a faith-based education for their child. We don’t take only Catholic kids. We take all kids, but we go back always to that history of service and community, and supporting those who want this type of education, which can be excellent and can put the kids on the path to success.
Kevin: Thanks. Could you talk a little bit about the profile of the children that you are educating?
Jill: About 80 percent of the kids that come to our schools in New York do qualify for scholarship. We have a partner children’s scholarship fund that administers these and helps fund some of the scholarships. So through that, we know that the median income for a family of four is just under $30,000. We know we are serving students that are living at the margins and are definitely struggling. So providing that support and providing those scholarships is super important. Seventy percent of our kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and about 67 percent of our students are Hispanic and 33 percent are African American. Around 66 percent are Catholics. So they are not all Catholic.
Kevin: Abi, could you talk a little bit about the kids in your school?
Abi: Our numbers are somewhat reflective, a little bit different. We have probably the most Catholic kids in the network. We’re close to 70 percent of students who identify as Catholic. We also end up having a lot of Catholic converts too, based on what we do. Most of my students at Sacred Heart are from the Dominican Republic. We are a community school, so that changes over time. In the time I’ve been here, I’ve seen the school go from a balance of African Americans and Hispanics—most of them from Puerto Rico—to where we are now. About 66 percent of our kids come from the Dominican Republic. We are a priority two school, so 100 percent of my kids get free and reduced lunch. We try to feed them three times a day: breakfast, lunch, and snack. It is a real need.
I worry about what this pandemic is going to do to this already marginalized group. It’s going to get significantly worse. Jill referenced earlier how parents are reaching out because they did not qualify for the stimulus, but even if they did, it was not necessarily enough. One of the things I heard a lot of in the hardship requests, had to do with them having to feed their kids, multiple times a day as opposed to the one or two times they normally did, and what that did to their budget. If you have to provide breakfast, lunch and dinner for growing kids, your grocery bill is now significantly more than it ever was before. This was a challenge for them to meet. We are constantly working on providing for our parents, so they can focus on their students.
Kevin: Abi, you mentioned that some families didn’t qualify for the stimulus. Could you and Jill talk a little bit about the foreign-born students, the immigrant children that you serve, who are particularly vulnerable? They might have temporary legal status or they might be undocumented. What is the percentage of immigrant children that you serve? And could you talk a little bit about some of the challenges they face?
Abi: I couldn’t give you straight-up numbers. It’s not a question we ask. We do want our families to be safe with us. I theorize, the majority of my kids, if they are not immigrants, they are first-generation Americans. Most of the parents speak Spanish and require translators. Some of them we have to read to them as well, what is going on in the school. They rely on us. So, it is a concern when we are not there for them as we were for parts of COVID. We’re there as much as we can. We are not physically there. They cannot see us and come to us every day.
I would have family members come in and just give us paperwork that had nothing to do with the school just because they needed someone to look through it for them, and tell them what the next steps were and what they needed to do.
We provided [the students] with vision, dental. Organizations come in, and they would get their yearly dental at the school and go home with a little baggy of toothbrush and toothpaste. They would get their vision checked every year, and go home with glasses if they needed. Some of that we couldn’t do this year because we had to shut down early.
I do know many of our parents and many of our kids struggled as a result of that. Highbridge is a lovely neighborhood, but it is a very socio-economically depressed neighborhood. We are a community school, and that community keeps changing because, as people do better, they move out of Highbridge. And they really should. It just means whoever is coming in is again at the bottom of the food chain, so to speak. We are trying to energize them and give them the tools they need, or at least give their kids the tools they need, to eventually move on out.
Kevin: Jill, did you want to add anything to that?
Jill: That was a good point, Abigail, about being physically at the school and being such a support for these families and helping them navigate the system, which can be very complicated. One example would be what we do for our families for high school placements. If you don’t speak English… it’s complicated if you do speak English. It’s really hard to navigate finding the best fit high school for your child. If you are not familiar with New York schools and with the fact that your child could potentially earn a scholarship to Xavier or Fordham or Notre Dame, [you might not attempt to apply]. [Students might be able to afford schools that] are “expensive” because of their academic results. [Because of what] we help them achieve, they are actually able to afford a very expensive private Catholic high school.
But again: What test do you take? Have you done the interviews? How do you bring your child to the school? How do you make sure they have done all the things they need to do to matriculate at the school? That takes a village.
We have folks at the network level, which is a perfect example of why our model is so effective. We have a high school placement team, and they fan out and have relationships with some of these high schools. They make sure the high schools have seen our kids, and our kids are getting the support they need and the parents are getting the support they need, to get that child into that high school and help them move on. I remember one story, Abi, of a mom, who had a child who got into Xavier High School, and then decided in the middle of the summer that he couldn’t go. [She had a] younger child who was not going to have anywhere to go when she was trying to bring her son down to Xavier from the Bronx. I heard about this, and Abigail heard about this. Abigail spoke to the mom and said, we will open the school early, so your younger daughter can come and you can take your son down to high school. So, we’re all in on how we make it work, and how we do everything we can for these kids.
Abi: Just to add to Jill’s point, we have become so much more visible to our high school counterparts in just the past few years with the work that the network has helped launch. I remember, I would have to reach out to schools like Fordham or Xavier, just to talk up a student to them. Now we routinely have them reaching out to us saying, “Make sure to send us your qualified applicants, and we are looking forward to seeing the Sacred Heart students.” What a difference. Even talking to my families, they know about Fordham, for example, that is in the Bronx, but they’d never dream of sending their kids there. It is just beyond what they think they can afford, or it’s too far to reach. And routinely now we say, “No, you go to Fordham. Your grades qualify you for Fordham. You are Fordham material.” You are pushing them to dream bigger and see the possibilities. It’s fun conversations, and way different than what we used to have before.
Jill: I was going to ask Abi to tell the story about Rosa, a girl from a refugee camp. When did she come to the school?
Abi: She was with us for two and a half years. She came to us mid-sixth grade, and she just graduated this past June. Rosa came to us from the Central African Republic, which is a war-torn nation. When her family first came to the United States, they ended up in a refugee shelter. They were registered at the neighborhood public school for that first year. It was a disaster. Their parents realized really quickly that she and her brother couldn’t stay here. The kids weren’t learning. They were afraid. They didn’t know how to navigate anything. Their counselors steered them to Sacred Heart.
They didn’t know if they’d be able to afford it. That’s never a stopping point for us. We got scholarships for them. Before they were able to fully apply, we reached out to the network and got them a little help in between. The kids were speaking more French than English to start the year. Rosa just graduated in June and she’s headed to one of our top high schools with a significant amount of scholarship. She was close to the top in her class and doing very well. We now have her second youngest sister joining the school in pre-K. The family is putting more kids here, and we are super proud of them. I remember sitting with Stephanie Reed, who is our high school advisor, and the father, as we were filling out [Rosa’s] high school paperwork. We got to do that before COVID. It was a process. We had to translate a lot of things for him. I speak a little French. Stephanie speaks Spanish. Rosa was there. Between all of us, we got the paperwork done.
Kevin: Abi, you mentioned that you were handed documents sometimes by the parents. Do you get asked to help with immigrant issues the families might have or need help on? Does that come up often? Are you in a position where you can refer them to, for example, a Catholic Charities program if needed?
Abi: On the school end, yes, I do get asked to write letters quite often, verifying that these kids do in fact come to our school, these parents are in fact engaged parents who show up for school functions. I once had to go to court to testify for a parent that: Yes, I have known him for as long as I’ve known him. His kids do come to our school. They are thriving members of the community. We do get a lot of that.
We also get a lot of conversations, like: I am so worried about someone getting deported, or maybe someone has been deported, and what that means for the family structure, both emotional and financial. We are not always able to direct them to different resources. In part, we just don’t know. We don’t have that bandwidth. But within our school, we make sure that we take care of certain things. So the financials, we’ll make sure that we are looking at the scholarship. If it needs to be increased, we’ll do that. Socially and emotionally, we have a school counselor, we’ll make sure those kids are seen and conversations are had. Sometimes, we even counsel the parents. We will make sure the counselor checks in on mom and asks: What’s going on? Or dad: How can we be of help?
On holidays, we make sure things go home with the kids. If it’s Christmas, we collect the donations within our community. We buy some Christmas gifts and send them home. On Thanksgiving, we collect for our food pantry. We’ll put some aside, and we’ll send home a basket. We are looking for ways where we can help our families as much as we can with what we have.
Jill: I’d say that mostly happens on the school level, and again, that’s the beauty of the model, we can try to do something centrally, but so many of these relationships exist and should exist at the school level.
Kevin: In the intake process, do you ask about immigration issues at all? Or is that something you don’t need to ask?
Abi: No, we don’t ask. There is nothing in our intake that poses that question. We want our families to feel safe, as though information isn’t being stored somewhere that can be accessed or used in a way that’s detrimental to them.
Jill: The only way that we are hearing about this is anecdotally, but what we have done about COVID has brought some of that out. We very quickly wanted to make sure our families were supported, so we decided on March 13th, we were going to forgive tuition for the whole shutdown in the spring. We didn’t want parents to worry about paying tuition or food, rent, or medical expenses. We also made sure that everyone was paid and stayed on payrolls, including the cafeteria workers and the teachers’ aids.
The really amazing thing is our board chair called me and said, “I’m going to give you $500,000, and we should challenge more people to help. I want this money to go to families that need it now, because we know the government is not going to respond quickly and is not necessarily going to respond at all for some of our families. And how can we give them the support they need at the worst time in history that we’ve known?” We started writing checks to families, and we made it a very simple process. Here’s a short form, fill it out, send us some sort of documentation about what the issue is.
We started out sending $500 checks. That has now gone up to $1,000 and more. We helped families with, unfortunately, funeral expenses. It’s heartbreaking. They write what they need it for, and we keep track of that. One mom said, “I lost my job because of the virus, and since I’m undocumented, I did not qualify for the stimulus checks. I’ll appreciate your help right now. It is difficult to pay for the simple things that my sons and daughters need.” And a check went out that day.
Then we raised another almost $700,000 on top of the $500,000. We have spent about $500,000, but we have more because we know there’s going to be a long tail to this and a lot of families are not going to get out of their situations quickly. So, we hear more anecdotally about undocumented families and their needs.
Kevin: You mentioned COVID. We are all struggling with COVID, but particularly marginalized communities. Have you had requests for access to healthcare, for example, for a family or even for a child? Because a lot of times, immigrant families are fearful of going to a local health clinic to get tested or get treatment. Have you ever had any occasions where you have had those requests?
Abi: I can’t say I had those requests. I think I heard more after the fact that someone was ill, someone was hospitalized. We made sure to reach out immediately and say, “Let us know how we can help. If you need help with those bills, reach out to us.” I will say, we were for the most part, spared, whatever that looks like, during COVID. We didn’t have a large number of our community passing away. We had quite a bit of illnesses, and we lost some of our older extended family members. I was worried very much in the beginning because Highbridge is marginalized.
As a community, they took heed of all the guidelines. I know kids who went home on March 13th and did not come out again until sometime in June. Their parents were just really serious about adhering to all the guidelines. Masks are not an issue. When we had our parent conversations about what coming back to school would look like, no pushback, none of that. Everybody understands. And I think that is why our community came through this relatively well, they understood and respected the science and adhered to whatever the guidelines were, that were provided to them.
Kevin: Yeah, New York was especially hard hit, at least early on during the pandemic.
Jill: We also supported these families by flipping very quickly to remote learning. Again, this is the beauty of a network, we are all on the same curriculum, and we have an academic team that makes sure we are teaching the core content, even in the pandemic. So we sent home a packet of work for a week, but then we flipped over to remote learning.
We had principals driving around to make sure that every family had a device and WiFi. We had check-ins every morning on Zoom, or however each school did their own welcome in the morning. There was art, music, gym and core content classes for three-year-olds to 13-year-olds. We serve Pre-K3 all the way to 8th grade. The ability of the team to be really nimble and to provide families with that educational experience, that was still at a high level of rigor and a high bar for excellence, even in the pandemic. I think that made our families feel even more supported. They walked by while their kid was doing a phonics assessment as a second-grader or kindergartener, and they saw the level of support coming from these teachers and leaders. If you are not in the building, you don’t see that every day. We have had record re-enrollment in our schools, and I hope it leads to more families considering one of our schools for their education. We do the whole-child approach. That’s what is really important to us.
Abi: A weird positive of COVID is it made us a much tighter and stronger community. We had to be sure that we checked in on each other religiously. Every kid got a Zoom call every day. Even with the youngest kids, who couldn’t necessarily do Zoom classes (pre-K and Kindergarten), the teacher would reach out and call the parents and talk them through how to present the lesson to the students. We did virtual stepping up ceremonies for pre-K and kindergarten students and a virtual graduation for eighth grade kids. I got to know some families I barely knew because I would make calls. I would learn about illnesses and their family members. It made us a much tighter community.
The amount of appreciation and overflowing gratitude from the parents to us is more than affirming. Part of me feels badly because they should expect that from us. The gratitude, as lovely as it is, it feels overly effusive because I want them to expect this from us. It shouldn’t feel as though we are going above and beyond. It should feel like this is what you are entitled to, and this is what you are getting.
Kevin: You mentioned that some of the families didn’t qualify for stimulus checks, and Congress is at an impasse right now on a new stimulus package. What public policy changes do you think should be advocated for or are needed to help some of these families? First of all, to survive the COVID pandemic and also to move forward economically and socially, so they can better their place in our communities.
Abi: I will say, speaking of Sacred Heart specifically, obviously, always more jobs, that goes without saying. That’s going to be more difficult than ever with the COVID. A trend that I am noticing as we are getting more immigrant families is [a need for] more affordable housing and more specific affordable housing. We have families that are not your typical American 2.5 unit in terms of kids. They have five, six, seven kids. So Rosa, who we talked about earlier, I know of six siblings. I don’t know how they all fit into a one- or two-bedroom apartment. That is the sort of affordable housing that is out there, smaller units. Affordable housing that takes into account that there are larger families is needed. There are extended families. We’ve got grandparents and parents and children, so you have three or four generations all living together. They live in two bedrooms, so the living room becomes a bedroom. They use all space.
We get an insight into this through COVID. Now we are in their living room. We’re seeing all this space. It’s your bedroom/your classroom/where your little sister is playing. More affordable housing, and definitely more specific affordable housing [is needed].
I will say for the community at large, [we also need] more youth programming during the school year, as well as the summer. We have after-school, so we are able to help with some of that until six o’clock on most schools days during the year, but summer is a disaster for many of my parents. They don’t know where to put their kids that they can afford. What ends up happening to a significant number of them is their parents send them back to Dominican Republic for the summer where grandpa, grandma, or auntie can look after them because mom and dad still have to work. The kids can’t be home alone. Affordable youth programs and summer programs are the two key things I know that the community of Sacred Heart could really use.
Jill: Any policy that brings stability to families is good for the students we serve, especially policies that provide a clear, timely, and just pathway to citizenship for these really hard-working families. That would just reduce the stress on our kids and on their parents.
I think the bigger policy shift is towards more school choice funding. We don’t have any school choice in New York. There are no government dollars that follow the family. We have in Cleveland a voucher, so we do have school choice in Cleveland. Every family that comes to one of our schools there, comes for free. The voucher is their tuition essentially. So from a broader perspective, this is a moment right now, where it could be a tipping point. Tax credits or vouchers would be an absolute financial game changer for private schools. This may be a moment where more parents might be demanding that.
Kevin: Thank you. So I have two final questions, one for each of you. First to Jill, if you have any final comments, but also if you can share where our listeners should go if they want to contribute to Partnership Schools? Abi, I’ll have you go second because you might want to think about it. I love the story of Rosa. Can you leave us with another success story of a child in your school or talk generally about how the school improves their lives and their prospects in life?
Jill: Thank you again for having us and showcasing us. We feel we are stewards of a long, long history of service that Catholic schools have brought for many, many generations. We are taking care of these schools, and we’re making them better, so they can continue to serve the communities for generations to come. Private schools and Catholic schools right now are on the brink of extinction, literally. Some of the stimulus money that hopefully will be coming can help, but models like ours that think about supporting Catholic schools differently are a way to change that dynamic. We haven’t figured it all out yet, and humility is one of our core values. We know that we still have more to do.
Being responsive during COVID has tested us quite a bit. We are emerging stronger and will stay very responsive to our community and continue the march towards getting our kids into the best possible high schools, colleges and careers. There are lots of ways that people can help us. Our website is partnershipnyc.org. You can go there. You can learn more about us. You can donate to us. We are always looking for more support.
Right now, for instance, we had to buy 700 iPads to help our kids. They are $400 each. We are going to get them one at a time. We really appreciate people helping. All the way up to bigger efforts of ours. Another thing we have on our website is a blog. We’d love people to read it and share it. We are not only trying to support our kids and our schools, we are trying to inspire the rest of the country. We are trying to inspire other Catholic school leaders to look at alternative ways of supporting Catholic schools. Sharing this story will be part of broadening our reach. We definitely take volunteers. You can contact us on our website. We have folks that tutor, mentor, spend time physically in our schools or spend time helping us in lots of different ways. We’d love more help and finding more folks that are interested in being part of our success story.
Kevin: Great. Thank you, Jill. Abi?
Abi: I can think of a student from two years ago, but there are many students. Recently, there was a student Shania at Sacred Heart, who was a really, really talented, smart and awesome student. And she would drive me nuts. It didn’t seem to matter what incentive or detriment we put out there, she could never make it to school on time. She was late every single day. She was easily the smartest student in her class, but she never made the honor roll, because that was also tied to attendance and how late you are. I finally said, “Shania, what is going on? Why can you not make it to school on time?” She runs me through her schedule. It turns out she has two younger brothers. She had to take them to their school first before she could come to Sacred Heart. She was walking them to public school, and she made sure they went into class and got settled and everything, so she was always, always late. I reached out to her parents and said, “Why do you have kids in two different schools? We do have room at those grade levels. Why are your sons not at Sacred Heart? We would love to help. We really want to get Shania’s attendance right because it’s going to start to affect her negatively, when she starts to apply to high schools in a couple of years.”
The family was very forthcoming. They had to make a decision. They could only afford, with the scholarship they were getting for Shania, to send one of their kids to Catholic school. They couldn’t afford to send all three. They understood the specialness of Shania. She was the oldest, and they were putting her through and then seeing what happens down the line. I said, “Of course not, we are not doing that. You will fill out the paperwork and we will see what it looks like and we will go from there.” We never start with saying what we can’t do. You do everything you can on your end. I’ll see what I can do on my end. By the start of next year, we had all three kids in school. Shania was on time, always. She was class valedictorian last year. Between her scholarship for both need and academics, she is going to Notre Dame Girls’ High School on a full ride. Her parents don’t have to pay a dime for Shania. They don’t have to worry about her anymore, and she has her two brothers with us, thriving and doing well. Her youngest brother actually had to repeat first grade when he first came to us. He was just so far behind from the school that he was going to. And his parents were okay with it. They understood. Now both boys are thriving, and we are looking forward to the next generation of that family hopefully being another Shania and great things for them.
Kevin: Wow, that’s terrific, thanks. When I was a kid and got called into the principal’s, I did not have as positive of an outcome. Thank you both so much for being here today, Jill Kafka, Executive Director of Partnership Schools, and Abigail Akana, Principal of Sacred Heart School in the Bronx. Thank you for being with us today.
Emma: If you want to learn more about Partnership Schools, please visit: partnershipnyc.org.
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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.