Ep. 36: Cool Schools with the Partnership for Inner-City Education

February 27, 2018

In today’s EdChoice Chat, we continue our “Cool Schools” series with a conversation with Kathleen Porter-Magee. She heads the Partnership for Inner-City Education, which operates six Catholic schools in New York City. Katherine tells our Director of National Research Mike McShane about the Partnership’s community roots and how they’re helping century-old Catholic schools innovate.

Mike McShane: Hello, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats. My name is Mike McShane, and I’m director of national research at EdChoice. Today’s podcast is part of a new series we’re embarking upon called Cool Schools wherein we will profile passionate educators around the country and the schools that they lead. This podcast series has two goals. The first is simply celebration. Starting a new school or running a great existing school is hard work. Too often it’s a thankless job, so we want to celebrate people who are trying something new and different and kick the tires on their ventures to uncover lessons that they learned and can share with other educators around the country.

The second goal is to try and stretch folks mind about what is possible in education. As educational choice supporters, we at EdChoice spend a healthy amount of our time trying to promote educational options that don’t exist yet. We push for states to pass laws that create the conditions for great new schools to open and scale, but many people struggle to wrap their minds around exactly what that might look like. In this podcast, we’re going to highlight some of those potentialities with quality school choice programs, innovative models like the ones we talk about here, could be coming to a city near you.

You know, at the outset, I would like to say that we’re not going to try and use this podcast to adjudicate whether or not these are “good or bad schools.” We’re not going to exam their reading and math scores and ask them why their fourth graders aren’t up to snuff. We are going to ask about mistakes that they’ve made, lessons they’ve learned, advice that they would give, and related questions, which should be helpful for anyone listening, even if you’re skeptical of their educational model or pedagogical strategy. As always, if you’d like to find out more about EdChoice, please sign up on our website for EdChoice emails. Once you sign up, you can watch your inbox and flesh out your profile with your mailing address if you want print copies of our reports mailed straight to your doorstep. You can also follow our blog, subscribe to this podcast, which we would really appreciate. We don’t just profile cool schools, we also interview the authors of groundbreaking research, describe education reform efforts around the country, and talk about the fun stuff that we’re up to here. You can also tweet us. It’s @EdChoice. You can also feel free to tweet me personally if you want to let your thoughts be known, on @MQ_McShane. I’m always on the lookout for more cool schools to profile, so if you know of one of those in your neck of the woods, please let me know about it.

On the podcast today, we have Kathleen Porter-Magee, Superintendent and Chief Academic Officer of the Partnership for Inner-City Education. The partnership is non-profit school management organization that oversees a network of six inner-city Catholic schools in Harlem and the Bronx in New York City.

Kathleen, thank you so much for joining us on the Cool Schools podcast today. You know, it’s probably best to just start at the beginning. Can you talk about the origins of the Partnership Schools in New York City?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yeah, fully, and thanks for having me. I’m glad to be here. The partnership has actually existed in some form for about two decades, but for the vast majority of its time, it essentially provided philanthropic support to urban Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. It would raise money and in terms of an endowment for scholarship support for disadvantaged students to be able to go to Catholic schools in New York. Then, also had a patron’s program where it’d connect benefactors with Catholic schools that were struggling and needed some additional support. That existed for a long time and then, about a little over five years ago, the board of the partnership came together and said, I can’t believe there isn’t something that we could do differently to maybe support these schools even more and maybe in a way that’s even more impactful than what we’re doing right now. They worked with the Archdiocese of New York to negotiate a services agreement.

The best way to think about the way we’re structured is that the Archdiocese is kind of effectively our authorizer, and we are the operator of six Catholic schools, three in Harlem and three in the South Bronx. They negotiated that deal with the diocese, which at the time was groundbreaking. And that was just a little bit over five years ago. We just started our fifth year as a school management organization, and we are in charge of everything. We’re financially responsible for the six schools; we’re in charge of making sure that they are fully staffed up, to make sure that they are compliant, that they’re organizationally effective and efficient, and that they’re academically excellent.

Mike McShane: Now, about how many students are served in these six schools?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: 2,100, just about 2,100 students.

Mike McShane: Is that growing? I mean, when you first took over five years ago were there fewer students, more? How’s that trend look over time?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yeah, I’m trying to remember off five years ago. It has been stabilized . . .

Mike McShane: Feels like a lifetime ago.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yeah, right? Exactly. It has been stabilized and increasing, so we still think there’s more we can do. A couple of our schools have wait lists and are very, very close to capacity. A couple are a little bit further away. But we’re thriving when it comes to enrollment for the most part. Our schools are doing well and attracting, even in one of the most competitive, in some of the most competitive neighborhoods in the country. I mean, we exist in Harlem, where there is tons of competition from charter schools and some very, very high-quality charter schools, so we’re pleased to see, first, the stabilization of our enrollment and some of that actually going up and increasing as well.

Mike McShane: Now, how did they rope you into this endeavor?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Actually, a mutual friend of ours connected us. I was doing something completely different at the time and a friend said, you know, there’s a group that is becoming a school management organization and running Catholic schools in New York. Would you be willing to advise them? Long story short, advising turned into working with them because I was so excited about the work that we’re doing. I actually, I mean, I grew up in the Archdiocese of New York and in fact, my mom, both my parents grew up in the Bronx. My mom grew up in the projects in the South Bronx and she’s actually an alum of one of these six schools, so it just kind of felt like an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

Mike McShane: Oh, that’s wonderful. Maybe, could you tell me a little bit about these schools, like the history of them? Are these kind of those Catholic schools that have been around for 150 years? Are some newer? What are they like?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yeah, our newest school was built in the 60s, so they are, yeah. We have, one of our six school, Immaculate Conception, which was actually my mom’s alma mater, was founded in 1854. Four of our six schools were founded more than a hundred years ago. The younger schools were still pretty close to a hundred years ago, so these are six amazing Catholic schools in New York that have been around for generations. I mean, those first ones, like Immaculate Conception, were built in, you know, at sort of the outset or the founding of the American system of Catholic schools in the day of, you know, Dagger John, who was the first Archbishop here in New York. We’ve got some pretty rich history and some deep community roots here.

Mike McShane: I was going to ask you about that, so I’m glad that you brought that up, talking about the kind of community roots of these schools. I’ll say, perhaps for a bias, that our own podcast here might have when we’re talking about cool schools or new educational options, it’s sort of a bias towards the new. Hey, look at this cool, new thing that folks are doing. While I would argue, and we can maybe chat a little bit more, that the angle that you all are taking about a Catholic school management organization is new, the schools themselves are actually quite old. I’d be sort of interested like how you navigate, how you think about doing something new and innovative within organizations and institutions. I mean, the particular schools are 150 years old or older and the broader organization of the Diocese of New York or the Catholic Church is substantially older than that. How do you think through that tension of doing something new in such a long-standing organization or institution?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yeah, so we joke that we’re a hundred-year-old startup actually, which I think is actually the apt way to describe us. It’s actually been an amazing gift to be able to come in and do turnaround work, which I think is really important in many urban Catholic schools around the country, and necessary. It’s been amazing to do it in schools and in communities where there are teachers and school leaders who are so deeply invested in the communities and deeply rooted. We have learned so much from our veteran principals and our veteran teachers about how to drive fairly urgent change in places that have such a long-standing and rich tradition. That, we joke actually, that we are turnaround schools, but not turn over. I know in the public school world, turnaround usually does mean turn over. In fact, I think for things like the School Improvement Grant, you actually have to turn over 50% of your …

Mike McShane: Yeah.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: … of your staff in order to get the grant and we’ve had the opposite experience where we’ve been able to leverage the best that is in our schools and drive change with them. It has been an amazing learning experience for me. Previously, while I had taught in Catholic schools, I’d also worked in Charter Schools, which was amazing, and I learned a lot there, but this is a, to add to your point, a very, very different animal. There is just so much that teachers and leaders who have been serving their communities for decades can really contribute to the reform conversation more broadly. I mean, you know, one of our schools, which is really thriving right now, the principal just started her 45th year in the same school and she jokes that she was, not even jokes, that she was here when the Bronx was burning and she’s seen it all. That kind of unflappable leadership has been really critical to our success.

For me, personally, I think what it’s meant is that we’ve been able to bring in some changes to curriculum and some changes to instruction and we’ve been able to really focus on that at the network level because we knew that our school leaders had seen it all before us, so the daily trials and tribulations of school leadership were not distracting to them. They really felt comfortable and confident in those areas and were able to turn their attention to curriculum and instruction in a way that was really powerful.

Mike McShane: This is really interesting. I think maybe it has broader implications sort of outside of private schooling or Catholic schooling, but it sounds to me like something that you’re sort of highlighting here is a blind spot that a lot of education reform efforts have, which is, in my perception, and feel free to disagree with me, is there is a bias towards the new and the young and the oh, these schools are full of these folks who are stuck in their ways. We need fresh blood or we need new and different people to come in and shake all this stuff up. Sort of what you brought up about school turnaround. It’s like the only way to do this is to fire 51% of the people and the principal. Has your experience sort of tempered your views on that? Do you think that that’s … is that foolhardy, is that wise? How is what you’ve done changed your opinion or influenced your opinion on that?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: I think what it’s probably done is made me far more cautious. I would say that by policy saying you have to fire 50% to 51% of your faculty and staff in a turnaround situation is foolish because how could you possibly know every situation? Right? I think one of the things that I’ve learned, because I’m sure there are plenty of examples that look very different from my six schools, where maybe you do actually have to turn over a large number of recalcitrant staff in order to drive change. That is not my experience, but I can imagine it may be some people’s experience. I don’t want to, just like I wouldn’t want somebody to extrapolate too much from the experience of needing to turnover 51%, I also don’t want to draw too many conclusions from my experience of not having to. I think maybe that’s the right lesson is to say you can have some guiding principles and you can have some indicators that you should look at and you should be attentive to, but by policy you should be saying you must hit this quota or this benchmark because it really is a case by case basis.

The other thing that’s slightly different about, at least the six schools that I now serve, and I think probably urban Catholic schools more broadly, is we’ve been playing a different game for the past 20 years. If you think about the origins of the school reform movement, while it was grounded in a lot of lessons from Catholic schools, the past 20 years has really been a story of public school change and Charter Schools in particular. On the Catholic School side, many of the schools, many of the leaders, many of the teachers, have sort of sat out the conversation for lots of reasons. One, that we were struggling for resources and couldn’t necessarily afford some of the changes that were happening elsewhere, but I think there’s an amazing benefit to the fact that we were able to sit out, observe, and watch. Now, we don’t have to make some of the same mistakes that were made over the past 20 years. Instead, we can learn from them and say okay, now the moment is right. We can draw from your lessons and from the changes you’ve made, import the best of the changes you’ve made, but in a context of our schools and communities. I think that’s one thing that’s been very different.

For example, in our schools, we didn’t find teachers and leaders who were weary of change, who had just seen kind of the spinning wheels of reform. Instead, we found teachers and leaders who were hungry for additional support and they were hungry for additional resources. That hunger has really been a lot of what’s driven change in our schools.

Mike McShane: That’s great. That’s a really interesting point. I imagine, though, it hasn’t been all champagne and roses. I imagine you had to overcome some hurdles. Maybe if you could identify two or three of the hardest things that you’ve had to overcome in this process.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: I think one of them was skepticism. I think when I came on board, while I was educated kindergarten through college in Catholic schools and I got my start as a Catholic school teacher and then the urban Catholic school teacher, so I have felt a particular devotion to Catholic schools. Because I had spent so much time in the world of reform and some time in Charter Schools, I think there was a lot of skepticism that I was going to come in and try to charterize our six schools. That we as a partnership didn’t understand what made Catholic schools really great and what’s led to the generational change that we’ve really seen in urban centers that are served by Catholic churches and Catholic schools in particular. I think there was a lot of skepticism and I think we really had to build trust among the communities, the teachers, the principals, and the parents in order to help them see that we were trying to unlock the potential that was there and not actually fundamentally change what was great about them already. I would say that was one of the biggest obstacles that we met in our first year especially.

Mike McShane: I would be interested to know, if you look back on that first year, that first six months that you were there, you know, a lot of folks that we hope are listening to this podcast are educators or might be interested in either starting new schools or somehow getting involved with that. From someone who has some experience in this, I would love to know one mistake that you made. Is there a mistake you made in the first six months or a year, that other people could learn from or that you learned from yourself, but that other people could learn from?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: That is the million-dollar question. I made way more than one mistake I’m sure.

Mike McShane: I’m just going to make you say one. You’re just going to have to say one.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yeah, exactly. You should probably go ask my principals and say what was the one mistake that she made that if you had to do it all over again you’d ask her not to do? That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I think it was probably a series of small mistakes and lessons. Thankfully, one of the benefits of working in the Catholic school sector is that our communities are very forgiving places and so it really is, we really are able to exist in the culture that is very open and very candid. I joke, I mean, I was raised by feisty Bronx women, men and women, and now I work among feisty Bronx men and women. They are candid and they are loyal and they are hard-working and they are not shy to tell you when you are doing something wrong. I have valued that immensely, so I don’t know what is the one thing somebody could learn from. I’m not sure.

Mike McShane: Well, maybe I’ll turn the question maybe like this. If you could go back to when you were starting and give yourself advice, like one piece of advice that you would give yourself knowing what you know now, what advice would you give yourself?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: I mean, well one, I guess maybe to go back to your first question. We did pick the wrong curriculum for one of our core content areas. That was our first mistake that was made. Based on, I mean, it was an educated decision, but it turned out not to be the right one and, again, fortunately we work with a very forgiving community and we’re still sort of undoing that and putting the right resources and materials in place. I think, but again, if I had to do it all over again, now I have the benefit of hindsight. That’s wonderful, so I’m glad that I work in a place that allows mistakes and where learning and growing from those mistakes is prized over anything else.

Mike McShane: Sure. Now, how do you measure success? There’s a sort of specific example that you just brought up of you chose one curriculum and then you realized it wasn’t working. What are the types of things that you’re doing to assess whether or not what you’re doing is working, either in the kind of micro sense of this curriculum versus that curriculum or the sort of macro sense of the entire endeavor?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: I mean, I think we look at success across a couple of different indicators. I mean, academic achievement is one that’s important to us for sure, so we do take the New York State tests, which I know is unusual for Catholic schools. Thankfully, there’s a long history in New York, though. New York State Catholic Schools have been taking New York State Regents and New York State tests for a long time. We do want to make sure that we’re benchmarking our own academic achievement against the best public schools, the best private schools, and the best charter schools in the state and in the city. Academic achievement is one measure of success, enrollment is another. I mean, we do believe in parent choice and we do believe that parents can and should have the power to vote with their feet. We wish that parents in New York had even more power than they do right now, but we look at enrollment as a really important metric of success.

We also look at high school placement. Our schools are pre-K to eighth grade and we know that by the time our students graduate in eighth grade, they’re not fully formed yet. There’s still a whole lot more growth and development that will come later, so we know that what we do in the nine or 10 years that they’re with us, has to be matched by equally values-driven and academically excellent high schools. We look at high school placement as a really important metric of success as well and then we actually look at some indicators about Catholic identity, faith formation, and values, which obviously is central to our work. We have some rubrics and some metrics that help us drive our conversations and thinking in that area as well.

Mike McShane: That’s fascinating, that piques the interests of the researcher in me, but I won’t belabor that on the podcast. For all the listeners, you were just avoiding me talking about exactly how one would measure those constructs, which I think is fascinating. I may have to follow-up with you about that one.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Well, I would love your feedback on it, so we can talk offline.

Mike McShane: Awesome. I love it. You bring up you take the state tests and then are … I’d be interested to know your connection to the broader kind of policy world in the state or in the city. Are there two or three policies or are there policies that sort of get in your way, that make your life more difficult that the folks that are listening to this podcast who are more on the policy side, you know, that if they want to have an organization like yours thriving in their community, these are policies that need to change?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yes. Well, I mean, for one we don’t have access to tax credits or . . .

Mike McShane: You don’t have to limit it to two or three.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yeah, how much time you got? No, I’m just, I’m teasing. We don’t have access to tax credits or vouchers in New York, which is something, I mean, I believe in empowering parents with the right to choose whatever school is right for their children, including faith-based schools like ours. That is absolutely a policy that I think can and should change in New York. Obviously, our policy in New York, along those lines, is more complicated because we are Blaine Amendment state, business that is something we’d absolutely like to see changed.

In addition, there’s lots of other policies related to Title I services and Title II services and how the services, the compensatory education services, get filtered through to our schools. It’s actually a pretty complex world and it varies wildly from state to state or jurisdiction to jurisdiction. The way our services come to us is more complicated than I’ve seen in some other places and I’d love to see that really get smoothed over. I understand why the federal government doesn’t send dollars directly to faith-based schools, but I think there are ways to really clear the path so that the disadvantaged students we serve get clearer and swifter access to the services to which they are entitled.

The other thing, which is a little-known fact about our network, is that our schools are unionized and it hasn’t been a major barrier. Our union is supportive of things like tax credits and choices, you would expect them to be, but obviously that does put in place some constraints that can be challenging and that can be difficult.

Mike McShane: That is a union of private school or of specifically Catholic school teachers? Are they affiliated with like the AFT or NEA or UFT or an umbrella organization?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: They used to be, yes. It’s the Federation of Catholic Teachers and it used to be affiliated with the UFT. My understanding, and I would just fact check this, but my understanding is that they broke the affiliation over the UFT’s stance on private school choice, which makes sense.

Mike McShane: Interesting.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Mike McShane: That’s fascinating. I did not know that. Thank you. That’s great. Are there other organizations like yours around the country that you know of?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Yes. Absolutely. I mean, and we’re all a little bit different in some meaningful ways, but there’s the Alliance for Catholic Education through Notre Dame, which I know you did.

Mike McShane: What up?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: That has . . .

Mike McShane: Graduate. Proud grad right here. Catholic school homer, I’m putting my cards on the table.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: That have a network of ACE Academies, which runs in a number of different states. In addition, there’s the Independence Mission Schools in Philadelphia, which is a network of urban Catholic schools as well. There’s the Camden Partnership schools in New Jersey. There’s a network, Seton, in Milwaukee, so there is a growing number of urban Catholic school networks who are coming together to figure out new and innovative ways to serve Catholic schools that have been struggling for the past several years.

Mike McShane: That’s wonderful. I have to imagine, dear listeners, you may be hearing more about those in the future in this very podcast. I have one last question for you and that is to sort of look to the future. What do you think the next year, five years, 10 years holds for the partnership schools?

Kathleen Porter-Magee: I mean, I hope a lot more learning, growth and development on our part. I hope that we are part of a catalyst, a nationwide Catholic school renaissance. That was a term dubbed, I believe by Andy Smarick not too long ago that there is so much energy right now going into rethinking how we can support urban Catholic schools to make sure they thrive for generations to come. That is very much a part of the reason that I came to the partnership several years ago, and its, I hope that we can continue to be kind of a torch bearer, the catalyst for that conversation nationwide.

Mike McShane: Wonderful. Kathleen Porter-Magee, it was an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for joining the Cool Schools Podcast today.

Kathleen Porter-Magee: Thank you for having me.

Mike McShane: That was my conversation with Kathleen Porter-Magee. How much fun was that? Forgive the perhaps perceived change in audio quality. We recorded that at our awesome studio at the EdChoice HQ in Indianapolis, Indiana and I have since left Indianapolis, Indiana and am recording this on my cell phone, so audiophiles I apologize, but this thing travels with me wherever I go where I can do great outros like this one.

Just as a reminder, if you’re looking for more opportunities to read about the great stuff that EdChoice is doing, you can sign up for our email list. When you do that, you can customize a profile that will send you just the content that you’re interested in. You can also just select all of the boxes and get everything that we put out because it’s all awesome. Also, make sure to check out our social media feeds. Check out us at Twitter, that’s at @edchoice. Subscribe to this podcast, we would really appreciate it if you subscribe to this podcast. Always, if you have ideas for Cool Schools that you think that I should profile, I am putting the feelers out, would love to hear from you. Feel free to email me. You could tweet them at me @MQ_McShane or send them to EdChoice, @edchoice, it will all get to me. Thank you so much for spending this little half hour with us and celebrating the great work that Kathleen and her crew are doing.