We are the We

Throughout the National Summit on Catholic Schools Serving Hispanic Families*, many proclamations started with “We should …” and a follow up question was often, “Who is the We?”  In order for any idea to become a reality, that is, if this program is to be initiated or that priority is to be addressed, it needs to be clearly stated who will own it, who will be responsible for it, and who will be accountable for its progress.  NativityMiguel schools were founded by individuals who stepped up and said ‘Yes’ to the idea that all students deserve a quality education, that faith-based education is uniquely positioned to deliver this education and that our schools need to remain accessible to the economically poor.  Building on this founding spirit, NativityMiguel Schools have an important stake in the ‘We’ and we are charged with strategizing how we can best use available time and resources to address challenges and leverage opportunities in order to fulfill our responsibility and accountability.

To this pursuit, I offer the following takeaways from the National Summit for all those who are responsible and accountable for the educational mission of NativityMiguel Schools:

Never Stop Learning. The terms Cultural Competency and Cultural Proficiency imply some acceptable standard.  Rather than aspiring to a certain bar, the standard should be always learning to be more understanding of how culture shapes our identity.  Our aim should be that we, each individual and our entire extended school community, are culturally aware at all times and engaging all representative cultures in our mission.

Value Diversity: At 39% Latino and 47% African-American, NativityMiguel Schools collectively educate a diverse population.  Over 2/3 of our schools, however, serve either a predominantly (defined as >70%) Latino or African-American population.  While we deliver an education that is accessible to the students we serve, if we believe in the value of diversity, how can all of our students learn, respect and be in relationship with students from other cultures as well?

Advocate for Our Students: Many of our graduates may enroll in high schools with school cultures that reflect a predominantly Anglo population.  Our Graduate Support Directors advocate for our graduates by informing these high schools how to become more welcoming, culturally-aware and adaptive to the needs and identity of all students.

Excellence is a Priority for all families.  Regardless of variances in curriculum, instructional approaches, school culture, parent engagement and other systems, our education must begin with a commitment to excellence and lead to excellence in academic achievement and student formation.

Invest in adults.  The best way to animate long-term change is to invest in adults.  Our schools understand the dispositions necessary to be successful educators in our mission.  By spending the time and resources to mature these dispositions, we are developing teachers, care-givers, leaders and board members who will become invested in and build toward our vision.

It all starts with an invitation. In order to increase the number of faculty, board members or leaders who are persons of color, we need to extend a personal invitation to grads, community members, or students on campus of our higher education partners.  Is there a student graduating from college who would be great as a teacher?  Extend an invitation.  Is there a teacher in our schools who would be a great leader?  Extend an invitation to a leadership pipeline program such as Ready to Lead within the Coalition or the Remick Leadership Program at the University of Notre Dame or a similar program at one of many at our universities and college.

Seamless System of Education.  Our higher education institutions are willing and able partners to continue our K-12 educational mission.  Many, like St. Mary’s University in Winona, MN, are increasing the enrollment of underrepresented students by designing programs specifically targeted to meet the needs of the whole student.   Additionally, higher education is committed to linking the expertise and research priorities of their faculty to study what is working and apply their expertise to improve outcomes for more students and families. Schools of education at Boston College, Loyola Marymount University and Loyola Chicago have created centers to be directly engaged in this work.

Set goals and be accountable to them.  This is true at all levels: individual schools, diocesan schools office and national associations.  What is our goal for enrollment?  For high school graduation?  For college graduates who have come through a Catholic school system?  Have we been successful for all students or for particular student profiles? What are our goals for training and forming Latinos to be teachers and leaders?  As the National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA) rethinks and redefines its role, could a set of national strategic goals drive our work at the diocesan and school level?  Set the goals, ask for each diocese and sponsoring congregation to devise a plan as to how they will contribute toward the goals, and then act.

We all have a share.  We can not get stuck in our silos, even in our Coalition.  We are stronger together, learning from one another, determining the best use of resources to have the greatest impact with the maximum number of students and families.  By working together, in 5 years, 10 years and 25 years, we can realize a positive trajectory of a growing number of Latino families and children receiving a Catholic education.

Think abundance not deficit.  The National Summit is testament that there is much happening already for us to build upon.   This is not about what we are not doing.  It is about what we are doing well and being more efficient with resources, time and knowledge to do better for more students and families who deserve and desire a quality, Catholic education.

* The National Summit on Catholic Schools Serving Hispanic Families was sponsored by the Roche Center for Catholic Education of the Lynch School of Education at Boston College on September 19-21, 2016 in Boston.  Tad Smith, Executive Director of the San Miguel School of Chicago, and Sonya Arriola, President at Sacred Heart Nativity School in San Jose, CA represented their schools and the NativityMiguel Coalition.  Terry Shields, Director of the Coalition also participated in the Summit.


Bringing the Light

nora6Ten years ago, Nora Cronin Presentation Academy opened its doors to young women in Newburgh, NY who are entering 5th grade.  I attended a celebration at the school a couple of weeks ago to commemorate the founding Sisters who met the challenge of starting the school and to retell the founding story of the dream and the people who mobilized the resources and partners to make it happen.  Students and alumni represented the school and community members read proclamations to honor the Sisters.  Several students guided visitors on a tour of the school afterward and one student was asked what this celebration meant to her: “It is amazing to know that these women want the best for us.”

While the story of Nora Cronin Presentation Academy is ten years old, the tradition in which it is rooted dates back to the mid-1700s.  Nano Nagle was the founder of the Presentation Sisters, and her story is foundational to the education and the school community:

Defying the Penal Laws [which denied Catholics the right to property, to education, to entry into the professions], Nano Nagle secretly set up a school in Cork, initially enrolling a class of thirty-five girls. From there the project grew.  Soon she had schools in other parts of Cork city. She employed teachers at her own expense to teach basic literacy and life-skills, while she travelled each day on foot to teach the catechism and to prepare her pupils for the sacraments. At night she would visit the poor in their homes, travelling the unlit lanes and dangerous, unprotected quays, offering what help she could. Her biographer tells us that ‘there was not a garret in Cork that she did not know’. Nano became affectionately known in the city as ‘The Lady of the Lantern’. (From the website http://www.nanonagle.com)

nora1There is an icon that is displayed in several places in the school – a poster in the meeting room, a large painting in the entry and a student-drawn banner on the third floor – that recalls this story, including one image of Nano Nagle carrying her lantern through the streets of Ireland.  This year, the school will honor the first two recipients of the Lantern Awards. It is a powerful metaphor to counter the poverty of Newburgh:  Let your light shine, and illuminate the way for your future and the community.   Even the school building reflects this tradition.  What was once a graffiti-ridden, decrepit house has been beautifully renovated as a bright space for learning.

Change and tradition are often seen as opposing forces; change threatens tradition and tradition blocks change.  For NativityMiguel Schools, however, these two forces have a collaborative relationship.   Tradition is the source of educational change that has impacted a generation of students and families in so many communities, and this change has only revived, strengthened, and animated the educational tradition of religious congregations and communities.  Our schools are firmly rooted in the past yet always looking forward to the future.

nora3Effective school leaders understand how to balance these two forces as a healthy synergy.  We do need to create new ways of delivering instruction, new curriculum for 21st century skills, new formative assessments that identify strengths and areas of growth, and new technology tools that support all of these.  Schools and school leaders, however, that are constantly introducing initiatives and rotating programs risk systems that are not aligned, confusion from faculty and staff and a fragmented educational vision overall.   These risks are mitigated when we know and stay rooted in what has worked in the past, and effective school leaders pay careful attention to the evidence that supports how the school is achieving what it set out to achieve and how the schools needs to improve.  In this environment, change is an opportunity to do more better without distracting from what we do well.

Like Nora Cronin Presentation Academy, our biggest breakthroughs, when we bring the brightest light, are anchored by tradition AND fueled by change.


Opting to Love and Care

optionsAnyone involved with one of our schools knows how powerful professional development and retreat experiences can be for a school community prior to the start of the school year.  Everything is fresh and new. Possibilities abound.  Aspirations and dreams are fueled by a prayerful imagination. Concerns and fears are countered with a shameless audacity. Most importantly, we know we are not alone as we are emboldened by seasoned colleagues and joined by new colleagues.

In preparation for the school year now underway, I facilitated retreats for faculty and staff of two member schools. At the St. James School in Philadelphia, we gathered in the chapel for morning prayer led by Andrew Kellner, the school’s chaplain, who read from the end of Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John:

Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe and the one who would betray him.  And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.

Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?”

Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you twelve? Yet is not one of you a devil?” He was referring to Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot; it was he who would betray him, one of the Twelve.

This reading led into an interesting reflection as to what “options” Judas had in this situation.  Could Judas have shed the ‘devil’ label and surprised Jesus later by not betraying him?  Could he have weighed his options and chosen differently?

Now it can be well-argued that Jesus had deep insight into Judas’ heart, mind and soul that we do not have with those we encounter on an almost daily basis, such as students in the classroom, teachers in the school, or partners in the greater community.  We also may not know the full account of the conversations and redirects that Jesus may already have had with Judas over time to alter his ‘fixed mindset.’  Most likely, Jesus knew personally that neither he nor others could persuade Judas any differently at this point and that what was to unfold was the only route forward.

Nonetheless, Jesus’ response and message to the Twelve is perplexing. As educators, especially as we begin a new year with a clean slate, we think the best of each person even when we know there is much to focus on otherwise.  Even when it seems inevitable that an individual will make a disastrous decision with tough consequences, we continue to narrate a different possibility and offer and encourage positive, redeeming, dignified options that lead to growth and liberation rather than decay and defeat.

Unfortunately our students and families are often stuck in failed systems and faced with hopeless situations in which all options are unjust.  At the retreats we read an excerpt from Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted in which he depicts families who are caught in the vicious cycle of eviction: “First, the landlord would summon the sheriff, who would arrive with a gun, a team of movers, and a judge’s order saying the house was no longer hers. Then [the tenant] would be given two options: ‘truck’ or ‘curb.’  ‘Truck’ meant that her things would be loaded into an eighteen footer and checked into bonded storage. …  ‘Curb’ meant that the movers would pile everything onto the sidewalk.”   It should not be an option for our society to accept these options for our children and our response should be immediate and urgent or another generation of children will be trapped in defeat.

We can advocate for a more just society with systems that serve the best interest of families and children by modelling this in our schools  In NativityMiguel Schools, we take the time to understand the options that comprise each moment, day, week and year for our faculty, staff, students and families and the impact that those options have on their growth, learning and development.   We are determined that each educated person is capable of making the right decision if given reasonable options and the appropriate love and care.

Each year, a new class of students is welcomed into our schools, and in many ways, each new class is similar to ‘The Twelve.’  We know there will be difficult days of doubt and frustration with one of the Twelve or even all of the Twelve when our perception and our heart is most tested.  On these days Jesus’ human response may resonate with us as we take comfort by faulting ‘the devil.’ Yet, we are also reminded that all are invited into a world that is graced by the holy presence of God. We do not exist in a world of decay and defeat, we exist in God’s love and  it is through that love that our next step, word and action  flows if we are to bear the good news that each one of us is capable of our best self in a just world.

Representative Democracy

TNAA friend who teaches 5th grade on Cape Cod told me about a student who sat next to him on the bus on a field trip in Boston, a little over an hour away.  As they shared excitement about the day ahead, my friend asked, “Do you get to Boston often?”  Amazingly the response was, “Mr. —-, I have never been to Boston before, in fact, I have never even been off Cape before.”  There are two bridges that take you from Cape Cod to the rest of Massachusetts and until then this 5th grader had never been over either one.

We all may recall similar conversations with students in our school who rarely if ever leave their immediate neighborhoods.  Some have never been downtown, or to the art museum, science museum or children’s museum, or to the stadium to root on their favorite team, and fewer have been outside of the city for more than hour radius.  (Granted that some of our students have travelled far to reach our city and perhaps have travelled home to see family and relatives at different times.)

As Director of the NativityMiguel Coalition, I have the opportunity to visit and be welcomed into communities in 18 states, the District of Columbia and two Canadian provinces. On one particular flight en route to Pittsburgh from Boston through Newark, I was taken by the views upon approach, the open spaces of the Northern New Jersey suburbs with schools, parks and golf courses melding with the more densely populated neighborhoods with the row houses and corner stores and schools and parks. From this viewpoint you see the roofs of all the building, viewpoints that you don’t see on a regular basis (though as one school leader said, the roof is a view that he has seen more than he’d like to). It is pure brilliance when you consider all the systems that needed to be constructed to make this work, and the minds that planned it and the hands that executed that plan.

Continuing on with fresh eyes, I was amazed as you come upon the entrance to the Hudson River with New York City in the background.  Massive ships are docked with stacked containers of goods coming from or going to another destination.  Large oil containers and refineries sit next to them ready to fuel the movement of people heading out in buses and cars to urgent appointments or casual fun.   When you arrive to the airport, the daily operations of our country is equally pronounced with flights heading out across the country filled with travelers, each with a story of something to do and someone to see.

The energy that is required to move forward each day is incredible; the minds that make the decisions that keep the systems running most days without incident, the sweat of those who work tirelessly on the ground, and the hearts that are required to do so with love and trust.   Perhaps we take all of this for granted as we age and mature.  Yet, as educators, perhaps we need to see again with the awesome eyes of a child to understand the critical role of our educational mission.

This is what our schools do.  Our students know absolutely that they belong and that they are valued. Our students are awakened to the opportunities that lie ahead within this grand, complex system and understand that with the right mindset and investment now they will be positioned to achieve and contribute in a positive way in the future.

On that trip to Pittsburgh, I was heading to visit The Neighborhood Academy.  The Rev. Thomas Johnson, Co-founder and Principal of the school, led Prayer and Worship that morning in the chapel.  The Rev., as the students call him, spoke to the students about the paradox of “I am Responsible” and “We are not Fully in Control.”  This is challenging for all of us to accept no matter what age or maturity and this tension exists in formation and development of our students.

It is because of this tension that prayer and community are so meaningful.   The Rev. recalled the words of CS Lewis in his reflection that morning: “Prayer does not change the situation, prayer changes me.”  This also refers to positive change in the community when voices are amplified in prayerful harmony.  Later, Tom will capture the value of the congregation in one succinct statement:  “I am because we are.”  The “I” can be read as the strength that an individual finds in community and also as the powerful presence of God that is revealed when we come together.  That afternoon, prior to the Orange-Blue Games, the entire school community gathered around a staff member to bless her new endeavors as she was departing for another position .   This image (above) is affirmation to the NativityMiguel Schools belief that each of us belongs and is vital to this world.

To advance the academic application of this spiritual foundation, The Rev. teaches a humanities course to sophomores at the school entitled Ethics, Origins of the Law, the Constitution & Capitalism.  The goal is to inform students of how society has organized itself and to confirm their place in a Representative Democracy. The aim is to give them the social capital, knowledge and skills to participate in our economic, political and judicial systems and to know the vision for a just society so they can speak out against injustice.  The class that I observed engaged students in thinking about the individual’s role in the circular system of lending and borrowing money.    Any homeowner with a mortgage likely understands the paradox “I am Responsible” yet “I am not Fully in Control.”

evictedDuring my visit, I was reading the book Evicted by Matthew Desmond that examines the downward spiral of eviction in our society.  I strongly recommend the read for any board member, leader, faculty or staff member in our schools.  Many of our families may likely have been evicted or know friends and families that have been in this situation.  Unfortunately the loss of home can negatively impact health, jobs and education which only increases the likelihood of further instability in the home.  While students living in poverty are more familiar with these systems and may be resigned that this is the world to which they belong, NativityMiguel Schools counter that view with a mindset, a lens, a voice and a heart that offers a more just and hopeful vision of their place in the world.

A very fitting, happy 4th of July!

Networked Improvement Communities


Three questions guide improvement science in schools and organizations:

  1. 1. What specifically are we trying to accomplish?
    2. What change might we introduce and why?
    3. How will we know that a change is actually an improvement?

While many organizations are engaged in this work on their own, improvement spreads much more rapidly through networked communities.

This is the final principle of improvement science; improvement is accelerated when organizations are connected and sharing success and challenges.  If one organization is able to learn from the improvement (or obstacles that impaired improvement) of another organizations, then they are able to apply that understanding and build from those lessons learned.

This is naturally the purpose, aim and work of the NativityMiguel Coalition.  We are stronger together than we are as a single school because we are able to learn from one another, adapt practice for our own use, and then advance the conversation by contributing our own learnings.

As I have stated before, the NativityMiguel Coalition is essentially a group of crowd-sourcing school leaders.  Each NativityMiguel school is independently governed as we believe that students are best served when each school has the autonomy and ability to deliver an education based on local need, resources and personnel.  Instead of being accountable to a detailed set of standards that define our educational model, schools commit to a set of four core beliefs and share successful practices with other schools around these core beliefs.  The Graduate Support Program has been developed over many years not as a mandate that was prescribed from a national office but through on-going discussion and learning by networked Graduate Support Directors.   Similarly, our schools continue to learn how to operate and thrive as a private, faith-based school with a non-tuition-driven financial model and look to one another for guidance and support.   As testament to sharing that learning, many of our schools have been operating for 15+ and 20+ years.

Within this structure, schools are able to maximize local growth and national learning.  This networking and exchange of ideas is only helpful if we know that we are learning from and building on academic achievement and excellence in formation.   As a Coalition of schools, we need to know where we are excelling and then equip our schools with the necessary tools and knowledge to improve on our mission to break the cycle of poverty through faith-based education for each student and family in our community.

Plan, Do, Study, Act

PDSA cycleOn our final Development Series conference call, Greg Naleski, Chief Development Officer for Washington Jesuit Academy, discussed changes that were made to their Annual Fund over the last few years.   Before redesigning their approach across all donors they tested some changes with a select group of donors who met certain criteria.  This group comprised less than 10% of all their donors.  The annual appeal letter that was sent to this group was different than the letter sent to all other donors.  The hypothesis was that a more ambitious ask over several years would yield greater engagement and funding.  Once the returns were in, the development team analyzed the data from this group to determine if this was the case. The consensus was ‘Yes’ and a new system for the annual fund was applied to all donors the following year in what is now known as the Impact Fund.

As this example supports, it is more appropriate to refer to school improvement as a science rather than as a process as it is basically the scientific method in action:

  • Ask a Question
  • Do Background Research
  • Construct a Hypothesis
  • Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
  • Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion
  • Communicate Your Results

While the Washington Jesuit Academy applied this scientific method to their annual fund, similar testing of a change idea can be applied in all areas – board meetings, classroom instruction, school culture, graduate support, etc.

Many of our schools may already be investigating and implementing change through a PDSA cycle, an acronym for Plan, Do, Study and Act.  Tony Bryk summarizes the flow of this cycle in Learning to Improve:

Plan:  Define the change, make predictions about what will happen as a result, and design a way to test the change on an appropriate scale.

Do: Carry out the change, collect data, and document how change was implemented.

Study: Analyze the data, compare what happened to predictions, and glean insights for next cycle.

Act: Decide what to do next based on what you learned: Abandon the idea?  Make adjustments? Expand the scale?

The accuracy of a PDSA cycle, like any experiment, is more reliable based on the frequency of testing and with the introduction of different variables under different contexts and settings, all of which should be documented in the analysis.  For example, a change idea in the classroom may be assessed through a PDSA cycle in every period for a week with consideration to teacher, time of day, etc.  This information naturally is more helpful than observing the change idea through a single PDSA cycle in one class period with one teacher.  Of course, limitations on time, personnel, resources and training will affect how many times a school can test a change idea through a PDSA cycle.

Regardless of how many tests are run, the thought is that before going to scale with a school-wide initiative, start small and look at a specific variable that can be changed to see if it leads to the intended results supported by both qualitative and quantitative data.  Importantly, this approach elevates the voice of teachers, support staff, students and families who are committed to learning what works best and excited to share what works and train others to implement sound practices.

Articulating a Vision for Improvement

Driver Diagram

School improvement is more effective through small manageable chunks implemented and assessed over a shorter timeline of 3 months or less.  Successful school leaders, however, understand how all the chunks fit together in a full vision to lead improvement.  Just as it is important to see the system that produces the current outcomes, it is equally important to see the complete set of systems that will achieve your aim moving forward.

More so, successful school leaders articulate that vision for all users and stakeholders.  In our small schools, vision is often in the head (or heads) of the head of school, board members, principal, development director, Graduate Support director and others.  Our school leaders may think:  “We are not a big staff and I see most people on a regular basis.  Everyone has probably had a conversation with me about the vision at some point.  Plus, there are a lot more pressing needs than drafting a vision document.”   Yet, as has been stated before, we can recall times that confusion, inaccuracy and inconsistency has dominated the school culture because the vision was not intentionally articulated across users and stakeholders.

I am a visual learner so I appreciate a visual representation of an organization’s vision.  Learning to Improve suggests several tools such as a driver diagram (pictured above).  More so, like any good science book, the Carnegie Foundation team of researches defined the tool and its parts in its glossary.

Concept Framework – An account that provides conceptual detail and relevant research findings that form design principles for key drivers and change ideas.  It also provides a conceptual basis for the development of practical measures.

Driver Diagram – A tool that visually represents a group’s working theory of practice improvement.  The driver diagram creates a common language and coordinates the effort among the many different individuals joined together in solving a shared problem. Organizes the various changes the network is trying out.

Improvement Aim – A goal for an improvement effort that answers the questions: What are we trying to accomplish?  Improvement aims should clearly specify how much, for whom, and by when.

Primary Driver – Representation of a community’s hypothesis about the main areas of influence that necessary to advance the improvement aim.

Secondary Driver – A system component that is hypothesized to activate each primary driver – the ‘how’ of change.

Change Idea – An alteration to a system or process that is to be tested through a PDSA cycle to examine its efficacy in improving some driver(s) in working theory of improvement.

In order to effective develop and apply a driver diagram or any tool to visually represent and articulate a vision requires much more extensive understanding, reflection and training than a set of definitions or a blog post allows.  Yet taking the time to do so can greatly strengthen an improvement process by ensuring that all are heading in the same direction, engaged as needed and invested in the outcome.