Facing Decline, Catholic Schools Form a Charter-like Network

July 20, 2015

Our Lady Queen of Angels, a 123-year-old Catholic school in East Harlem, is starting to look a lot like the Success Academy charter school around the corner.

At Queen of Angels, an intricately decorated bulletin board—a fixture of charter school hallways—promoting the reading prowess of the school's kindergarten classes hangs next to framed photographs of Pope Francis and Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

The school is replacing its dusty slateboards with new whiteboards, and its leaders are picking out new desks for next year, an attempt to be what its leaders call “intentional with branding,” a phrase and philosophy borrowed from the charter sector. The nuns who taught here during the glory days of Catholic education in New York would not have recognized the term.

On a typical school day several weeks ago, sixth graders in blue pleated skirts and ties flipped through new primary source books on colonial America, part of the school’s newly streamlined curriculum provided by Amplify, the digital education product company favored by education reformers. Amplify is run by Joel Klein, the former city schools chancellor who helped create the city’s booming charter sector.

Students sat in pairs and were asked to “turn and talk” to their partners about the text, a regular feature of charter classrooms, before sharing their answers with the class.

Our Lady Queen of Angels looks and feels different than it did just a few years ago, and its charter-aligned upgrades have already begun to pay off: Pope Francis will visit the school during his visit to the city in September.

With Catholic schools closing across New York City and enrollment plummeting 35 percent over the last decade alone, Queen of Angels and five other Catholic schools in East Harlem and the South Bronx have banded into a “network”— another charter term—of six schools and 2,100 students to try to reverse course.

A central part of the plan to push back the decline of Catholic education is to treat the city’s successful charter school sector as a model, rather than a competitor, although charter schools have been contributing to the Catholic sector's population drain by attracting low-income families who choose a free charter over a tuition-based parochial school.

The six schools are managed by the new Partnership for Inner City Education, which signed an 11-year contract with the Archdiocese of New York in 2013.

“The Catholic school system as a whole right now is taking a step back and saying, ‘we need to get this right now,’” said Cecilia Greene, the Partnership’s director of stewardship.

The idea is that if these six schools can show substantive improvement over the next several years, the rest of the city’s struggling Catholic schools could follow. And the Partnership’s leaders are looking to the city’s high-performing charter schools as a template for their revamped schools.

The schools' student populations are very similar to that of the city's charter sector. Ninety-nine percent of students at the Partnership's schools are black or Hispanic, and 69 percent qualify for scholarships. The Partnership has a higher percentage of English language learners—22 percent—than most large charter networks.

Greene described the network’s model simply: “We are Catholic charter schools.”

The Partnership’s turnaround plan combines some of the central components of Catholic schools—strict discipline, a focus on character development—with a new infusion of charter-inspired efficiency and academic rigor.

That means new monthly spreadsheets tracking students’ academic progress, weekly professional development sessions, and regular meetings to discuss the school’s finances.

The Partnership has hired an operations manager, a title and position directly borrowed from the charter world, in each school to implement H.R. and finance protocols, fix leaks and make sure parents have paid their tuition.

Kwame Millar, the Partnership’s C.O.O., who oversees all six schools' individual operations managers, was the founding operations director at the Achievement First charter network. Millar says his team visits network charters a few times a year to study everything from classroom renovations to Chromebooks. “We take little bits and pieces of best practices,” he said.

It’s a far cry from how business has been conducted for centuries at Our Lady Queen of Angels. The school’s longtime principal, Joanne Walsh, said she was the school’s “tuition collector, boiler fixer, and lightbulb changer” for years. Without those daily headaches, Walsh said, she can pay more attention to academics.

"One of my biggest regrets as principal was I felt I neglected teachers," she said. "I'm not feeling that anymore."

The ultimate goal is to boost academic results, although the Partnership is giving its schools a five-year window to show significant strides. The Partnership is tracking high school placement and completion data, scores on state exams and the Archdiocesan religion tests, enrollment and student retention figures, and costs and revenues for every students.

Kathleen Porter-Magee, a former teacher in Catholic schools in Washington, D.C., and the founding director of curriculum and development at Achievement First, has been given the critical assignment of improving the six schools’ formerly lackluster academics.

The biggest lesson she imported from the charter sector, she said, is that “the level of care and planning it takes to run an urban school well is really, really high."

Porter-Magee introduced daily checks for understanding in the form of exercises or quizzes in all academic subjects.

The curriculum has been tweaked and made uniform across the network, and there’s a new emphasis on data-driven instruction. Porter-Magee described the Partnership’s philosophy on data as a “hybrid of what we learned from our charter peers on how to apply data-driven instruction without demanding that our teachers do a lot of the curriculum themselves.”

That means the Partnership's teachers will be given curriculum templates by the central office in order to ensure that every student in the six schools is learning the same content at the same time, which the Partnership's leaders say is new phenomenon at the schools.

Porter-Magee also brought in Doug Lemov, an instructional coach who has developed a cult-like following in the education reform world for his workshops on teacher effectiveness.

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