As religious enterprises rooted in a rich moral tradition, it’s not surprising that Catholic schools across America have long placed a great emphasis on character education. In this installment in R Street’s series on civil society and character, Clare Basil and Franklin Lee explore how the seven Partnership Catholic schools have worked together in New York City to inculcate virtue in a highly diverse student body while simultaneously delivering a top-notch academic program.

Partnership, which operates in some of the city’s poorer districts, brought together seven existing schools, the oldest of them founded before the Civil War, under a special agreement with the Archdiocese, which almost perfectly embodies Catholic Social Teaching’s principle of subsidiarity. Some issues, like those of morals, are strongly informed by ancient religious teachings that the Church holds throughout the world; others, like detailed specifics of curriculums, are decided at the building or even classroom levels. In between, a central administration absorbs much bureaucratic busywork to free principals and teachers to focus on education. And Partnership’s four key values—all of which were derived from things the schools were already practicing—inform this work.

The resulting school system provides over 2,000 students—overwhelmingly nonwhite, 85 percent on scholarship and 48 percent non-Catholic—with a high-quality education, while spending far less than the local public or charter schools. Indeed, the model is so successful that Partnership is looking to grow its footprint in the very near future. As much as anything else, Partnership’s example demonstrates that a highly adapted, carefully constructed governance model that draws on principles of faith can create schools that produce good academic results and, there is every reason to believe, good people, too.

— Eli Lehrer, President, R Street Institute


Partnership Schools (Partnership) is a nonprofit that manages seven New York City Catholic schools, four in Harlem and three in the South Bronx. Partnership incorporates the core beliefs of the Catholic Church into its hiring, policies and practices, curriculum and instruction. While this grounds their character education, many of their students are non-Catholic—a testament to the fact that a rich character education can, and should, be available to all students regardless of faith.

Partnership Schools was formed in 2010 through an agreement between The Endowment for Inner-City Education and the Patrons Program, a nonprofit  that facilitates systemic changes in Catholic elementary education in New York City. In 2013, they secured an agreement with the Archdiocese of New York for full, operational control of six Pre-K–eighth grade schools. This change shifted a number of responsibilities from parish pastors and school principals to the Partnership office.

Since then, Partnership has made significant strides in academic achievement, complementing the schools’ work in character formation. Unlike six years ago when Partnership struggled to get 20 percent of its students to pass state tests, they now routinely beat state, city and charter averages.2 As early as 2016—only three years after the operation of their network schools began—Partnership raised their state English exam scores by 16.1 points, compared to the 13.7 point increase for city charter schools and 7.6 point increase for district schools.3 Similarly, their state math exam scores increased by 13 points, compared to 4.5 points for charters and 1.2 points for district schools.4 Partnership also managed to nearly double the percentage of students scoring “proficient” on the state’s English exam, from 22 to 43 percent, and nearly triple the math proficiency, from 17 to 45 percent.5 In addition, Partnership’s graduates have received over $2.5 million annually in scholarship support to attend top high schools around New York City.6

Currently, over 2,000 students are educated in Partnership Schools.7 While the governance arrangement is unusual for Catholic K-12 education, some of its schools have been operating as far back as 1854.8 With the addition of another school, St Charles Borromeo in Harlem in 2019, Partnership shows signs of operational and academic health. The entire network’s approach is based on the values of integrity, humility, hard work and service, but each school retains its individual characteristics. Consequently, Partnership shows how a network of longstanding schools can maintain a uniform tradition and pursue joint initiatives while preserving the character and autonomy of individual schools.

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