An Educational Partnership

A Catholic school network supports students, families, and staff amid the pandemic

Nationwide school closures have sparked a debate among private and Catholic schools: what should be done about tuition? Should families still pay, even if students don’t enter a school building the rest of the educational year? At Partnership Schools in New York City, the answer is no. 

A unique network of seven Catholic schools—set up by philanthropist Russ Carson to be run by its own board while continuing under the umbrella of the Archdiocese of New York—Partnership is making tremendous efforts to serve its children, their families, and school staff even while coronavirus turmoil swirls through its city. As they closed their campuses, the Partnership Schools announced they would continue to help their constituents in three ways. 

First, tuition will be waived for the duration of the school closure—amounting to a $580,000 monthly loss for the schools. Second, all staff, from teachers to cafeteria workers, will continue to be paid their full salaries. Finally, an emergency fund has been created by the Partnership to help needy families. So far, the fund has amassed $895,000 in private donations, mainly from its own board of trustees, including The Carson Family Charitable Trust and Laurie and Peter Grauer. Other donors, such as Paula and Tom McInerney, also contributed. 

When any student’s household is in need, an application can be made to their school principal. “We let principals be gatekeepers because they know families,” explains Amy Stevens, president of the board of Partnership Schools. She then makes final allotments. 

Stevens says more than 270 families have applied for aid so far, with most receiving $500 checks. Some need more assistance. For example, one mother of five kids was recently laid off, so “we just sent a second check of $1,000.” 

There are 1,800 families in the Partnership network, and 85 percent of its students, pre-K through eighth grade, come from low-income families, and are served with scholarships underwritten by donors. 

Even in normal times, Partnership Schools make great effort to support their families. There are tuition grants and discretionary funds that principals can use to help needy students. When today’s pandemic arrived, the administration was quick to respond to the increased needs. 

“Our team can turn on a dime,” says Jill Kafka, executive director at Partnership. “We can really focus our efforts quickly.” And thanks to their loyal donor corps, “We can get what’s needed.”

The Partnership Schools were founded in 2010 under the direction of private equity investor and Simon Prize philanthropist Russ Carson. When a group of Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx were threatened with closure due to economic stress, Carson saw an opportunity to take over management (with the agreement of the Archdiocese) and bring charter-school-type business techniques to their management. The result: rapidly improving, faith-based, community-oriented schools that serve students at low cost. 

As soon as the pandemic struck, says Amy Stevens, “Russ Carson kept pushing us on the management team…. How are we getting money in the hands of our families?” When the waived tuition was announced, “we all felt such a sense of relief,” say Molly Smith, principal of the Mt. Carmel-Holy Rosary School in East Harlem. She describes the expensive decision as “an affirmation of what we’ve always believed to be true about our network: that we put our families and the people in our network first.”

With these existential questions settled, the Partnership Schools were free to quickly shift their focus to hard practical questions about how to keep educating children who could no longer be gathered on campuses. A forced, fast shift to online learning was required. 

One of the biggest adjustments, reports Jessica Aybar, principal of St. Athanasius School in the South Bronx, was making sure all families had the computer connections they would need to participate. Immediately, “we sent out a survey” about Internet service and devices in the home. The school also asked about immediate needs for food or shelter. 

“Right away we were able to make some key moves,” states Aybar. Her school, for instance, hand delivered 35 laptops and iPads to families, along with food, to families with needs. That “made people feel very supported,” she says, and allowed parents “to focus on what’s important: making sure their kids are okay through all of this.”

Other online-learning adjustments included changing deadlines for students—some of whom have working parents who aren’t free to help them with homework until later in the evening. The shift to online learning has been a trial-and-error experience for all involved. Fortunately, notes Smith, “one of the things we’ve always worked really hard to do is to be in touch” with parents, whether via phone calls, Q&A sessions, or Instagram live videos.

Jocelyn Santiago, who has two children at St. Athanasius, says the jump to online learning was a difficult transition, but it’s now going fairly well. “I reached out and said we were having difficulty keeping up on time. Two days later, I got an e-mail that they were going to try to get a Chromebook for the kids to take turns using.” Within 24 hours, principal Aybar dropped it off herself. 

Santiago is a single parent who provides the only income for her household of four. “It was such a relief knowing that at these times, I don’t have to worry about paying tuition as well,” she says. An alumna of the same school her children now attend, Santiago says that despite the hardships, she plans to re-enroll her children in Partnership Schools next year. “It’s been the best decision that I’ve made.”