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One for All and All for One in Philadelphia’s Independence Mission Schools

By: Bill Schmitt

IMS Brand Journalism

A network of 15 Catholic schools serving Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhoods, collectively called the Independence Mission Schools (IMS), is striving to balance independence and centralized initiatives in its new steps toward academic excellence, building upon financial equilibrium it’s already established.

Early successes for this three-year old network have led to plans for a next phase. Long-time symbols of community confidence offering neighborhood kids quality educational alternatives, the IMS aim to ramp-up their strengths. To do so, they’ll coordinate with people and programs driving change across the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

“We made a commitment to keep our presence as neighborhood schools,” said Anne McGoldrick, who helped establish the innovative partnership and rose to become president of the non-profit IMS network in March 2015. Changes that began in 2013—focused on robust financial aid practices, parental buy-in, enrollment gains, and more transparent and sustainable budgeting—have empowered the schools to retain their own identities and draw strengths from their communities.

Statistics assembled in the past few years tell the broader story of IMS as a needed presence, worthy of support. Across all the schools, 36 percent of students live below the poverty line. Children of all races—5 percent of them Caucasian—are attending. Enrollment is up 22 percent since 2012.

A spirit of inner-city solidarity, welcoming children of many faiths and backgrounds, has produced some Catholic schools that enroll about 70 percent African Americans or 70 percent non-Catholics. (One of the 15 schools is almost entirely Latino.) Families of these students strongly support their schools’ values and sense of security, McGoldrick said. This loyalty, which also energizes alumni and donors, is crucial to the Independence Mission equation.

But the equation also includes a promise of solid academic gains, combating the achievement gaps which plague under-served communities, she said. The schools are making progress through what McGoldrick describes as “an investment in instructional leadership bandwidth,” uniting multiple schools. Extra capacity enables more after-hours activities, for example, and a successful summer-reading partnership engaging parents and helping students sustain progress year-round.

Now, the IMS has rolled out that program, piloted first in two schools, to six schools. The collaboration with a non-profit provider of literacy resources, is easier to expand thanks to efficiencies of the central IMS office, which is headed by McGoldrick, along with specialists in finance, facilities, development, technology, and academics.

The idea of a central office has evolved, McGoldrick said, growing a bit from the very small core initially envisioned. Individual schools standing alone simply lack the resources to facilitate programming that boosts student opportunities and achievement on a larger scale.

McGoldrick is planning carefully to maintain a balance between independent schools and new leeway for initiatives that aim higher. Evidence of a neighborhood-centered approach abounds. Schools retain their own names and connections with local populations, churches, and founding religious orders. Parish priests surrender some administrative duties but continue to play pastoral roles.

“Each school keeps its own set of books,” McGoldrick added. “We are the backbone for all the schools, but we don’t take assets from one to support another.” Each is becoming sustainable on its own. The IMS leadership encourages each to have its own local advisory board.

The archdiocese has ceded control over hiring, firing, curriculum, and more to the IMS. But it retains authority over the schools’ Catholic identity and their safe-environment procedures. Such power-sharing aligns with the situation for 17 Philadelphia area high schools, as well. The nonprofit Faith in the Future Foundation oversees those schools, as well as the archdiocesan office of Catholic education. Faith in the Future recently had its contract renewed through 2022.

McGoldrick is optimistic that the balancing of autonomy with centralized functions among elementary schools will continue to go well. Her office is introducing a “Character Counts” initiative across the IMS network. The program, integrating values within the curriculum, will reaffirm the schools’ Catholic qualities which neighborhood parents want, she said.

At the same time, recognizing that non-Catholics constitute majorities in most schools’ enrollment, “Character Counts” will outline the practices and principles of Catholic identity in a way “translatable for the parents who are not religiously oriented.”

Higher academic aspirations will also challenge veteran principals and teachers to embrace new educational techniques and an influx of differently trained educators. That will be an opportunity for the central office to support long-time leaders who embody their schools’ traditional charisms and values—while facilitating inevitable transitions and turnover, partly through initiatives enhancing school leadership.

“How do we make sure that, while introducing new academic techniques, we don’t lose the things that make us special as Catholic schools?”  That’s the next challenge for the IMS, McGoldrick said, now that Philadelphia Catholics have embraced the mission’s multiple goals—financial renewal, respect for each community, and a dedication to improvement that literally transcends old boundaries.