Walking with Communities
Jenn Beltramo (ACE 9, Remick 8) honored with 2018 Founders Prize
“My placement was in South Central L.A.” says the Diocese of San Jose’s Superintendent Jenn Beltramo of her ACE placement. “Not too far from the border of Watts.”
Arriving in her first classroom, Jenn found exactly one broken stapler in the closet and a few sets of older textbooks on the shelves. Jenn says, “I connected with family, friends, and eventually foundations when I needed resources for the students, but ACE had instilled in me that educating isn’t about resources—it’s about the environment we foster and the learning opportunities we facilitate.”
Jenn has dedicated her career to fostering and facilitating those learning opportunities, so in recognition of her integrity as a true servant leader, her dedication to empowering highly effective school leaders, and her belief in the transformational power of Catholic education, Jenn has been honored with the 2018 ACE Founders Prize. It is generously endowed by Scott C. Malpass and presented annually to two ACE graduates whose God-given talents of leadership, innovation, and commitment to service on behalf of the Gospel have shaped their vocations and transformed their communities. Steve Camilleri, the director of the Center for the Homeless in South Bend, also received the 2018 ACE Founders Prize.
Jenn’s journey started in Kingsport, a small town in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. “Service and justice were an integral part of growing up in a small community. My parents had deep faith and were committed to—in small, quiet ways—really supporting others,” she says. They instilled in Jenn a foundational sense of commitment to others within a community. She found purpose and inspiration in the message that faith wasn’t separate from her life, but lived out in serving others and seeing Christ in them. She sought a way to experience that more fully and found it in the Alliance for Catholic Education.
As part of ACE’s ninth cohort, Jenn was assigned to teach seventh grade at Mother of Sorrows Catholic School. Located near the epicenter of the 1992 riots, the school had recently been on the brink of closure and was struggling financially and academically. Some might have been daunted. Not Jenn. “I actually applied to a few different programs because I wanted to work in an inner city,” says Jenn, who had long had a passion for working with students and education. She recalls a pivotal conversation with ACE 7’s Paola (Gaine) Womac, who was then teaching in South Central L.A. They talked for hours late into the night, and Jenn fell in love with what she heard about the spirit of the people and with the opportunity to truly serve within that community.
Mother of Sorrows has never been the same.
Jenn was grateful to be in a school that provided a safe, welcoming space for its children in the heart of the inner city, but she refused to stop there. She was determined to help them beat the odds and provide them a transformative education. Jenn says, “Understanding the need instilled in me a moral responsibility to serve it. I found that our children could exceed every expectation if given the right supports, but to do this we needed to walk with those we serve, truly encountering each person.” As a seventh-grade teacher, Jenn demanded excellence from her students. She created tutoring programs, developed social supports, and raised the academic standards in her classroom. But convincing the children wasn’t enough. She understood that any long-term success would require buy-in from the adults, too. She set high expectations and forged trust with the parents and the community.
Jenn was so committed to Mother of Sorrows that she stayed past her two-year ACE assignment, and in her fourth year there, she was asked to be the school’s first vice principal and lead them through their critical accreditation process. Jenn says, “Totally providentially, I was serving on an accreditation team at another school that was in Compton the following week, and that school got a one-year accreditation. I just kept thinking in so many ways that our school is in worse shape. I really reflected and prayed and said, ‘I want to walk with this school and go through this with them.’”
Following that year’s successful accreditation, Jenn was asked to become the principal, and despite all her successes, she laughed and said, “Surely you must have someone better!” Jenn was encouraged to listen and pray about the needs of the community and then also about the gifts she’d been given; to find out where those two things met and begin there. They met at Mother of Sorrows, and she spent the next five years leading the school—working closely with the faculty, providing clear systems and resources for using data to assess student growth and inform instruction.
Along the way, Jenn never stopped learning. “ACE, in many ways, has walked with me in every step of my formation. When I was asked to assume the principal role, not having formation in it, I wanted to find out if there was a way to form myself more,” she says. She joined the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, and as part of its eighth cohort, Jenn developed a true understanding of the nature of servant-leadership and why Catholic education is so critical to our country’s future. Jenn shares that now as a professor in the Remick Leadership Program and as one of its strongest advocates.
Jenn’s refusal to accept the status quo—as well as her unwavering belief in the need for highly effective school leaders—distinguish her career. “Everything is about reaching our children, but we can’t continue to reach our children if we’re not really having an opportunity to walk with, collaborate with, and build the collective capacity of all of our adults serving in the schools,” she says. In 2012, she joined the school office of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, where she served more than 200 Catholic schools as assistant superintendent and then as director of academic excellence. She says, “So often in Catholic education, our schools have existed in such isolation. And even within our school, our teachers might be in isolation just by the nature of the structure of the classrooms or the buildings that might be on campus. So, I’m very passionate about fostering community both within schools, but also between schools, having a shared language and a shared purpose so we truly can come together and collaborate.”
Jenn’s integrity, vision, and desire to understand the needs of the communities she serves recently earned her the appointment as the Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of San Jose. She now unites with the community under a common purpose and mission—continuing to live ACE’s call to make God known, loved, and served. Jenn says, “Catholic education is the future of our Church. Catholic schools truly are the heart of the Church. It’s an essential ministry, and it’s not only incredibly hopeful, but it’s vital.”