Earlier this year, Jill Kafka, the tireless Executive Director of Partnership Schools, announced that she is stepping down after twenty-seven years of dedicated service. It’s the end of an era, but those of us who work at the innovative Catholic school management organization she helped found in 2012 recognize that the lessons in transformational leadership we have learned from Jill can propel our work forward for years to come. And we can see how crucial these lessons are to the broader conversation about how America’s schools take on the dual crises of declining enrollment and unprecedented learning losses.
In 2012, in the face of the steady erosion of Catholic schools serving working class families, Jill took on the challenge of transforming a successful scholarship and Catholic school support program she had led for more than a decade into a private school management organization that was charged with putting then six diocesan elementary schools on the path to long-term financial sustainability and academic excellence. In the years since, the Partnership, of which I’m superintendent, has expanded from six schools in New York to eleven in New York and Cleveland. The organization has raised over $127 million, and it has driven substantial increases in academic achievement and enrollment. Amid the pandemic’s devastating impact on education and in the midst of widespread Catholic school closures, Jill has created a powerful example of what is possible for children when relentless optimism, ambition, and creativity are brought to bear on a centuries-old institution. In particular, three lessons from her two and a half decades of steadfast leadership stand out.
1. You must open yourself up to growth, learning, and change.
Perhaps the greatest threat to transformative change is the idea that we’ve figured it all out. Real organizational change is only possible when leaders can truly open themselves up to learning—something that Jill did several times over at the Partnership.
For starters, Jill’s work at the Partnership began twenty-seven years ago when she left a successful Wall Street career to lead an effort to raise money for Catholic schools. And she succeeded on a level far beyond what most K–12 fundraisers could imagine, raising $100 million and giving away scholarships to thousands of students in more than fifty Catholic schools.
Yet, together with the Partnership Board of Trustees, she had the humility to acknowledge that the real mission of the work wasn’t to raise and give away money. It was to unlock game-changing opportunities for low-income children. Some students weren’t excelling, and some of the schools still closed.
So when asked to help reimagine what was a scholarship organization into a nationally recognized private school management organization, she accepted fearlessly—and humbly. That is, Jill understood that shifting from sporadic support to school management and accountability could have enduring success and impact for the lives of students. She knew that there was only one way to make that shift successfully, and it was to learn as much as possible about how to run schools. To do that, Jill surrounded herself with people who would teach her, and us, more about how to serve our students well. There was never a meeting she would turn down or a call she would bow out of if there was something more she could learn.
The combination of personal humility and ambition for the mission that such an act of creative destruction entails is rare, precious, and crucial for civic organizations in rapidly changing times.
2. When negativity is currency, optimism and courage are everything.
It feels too often that we live in a cynical age—a time when negativity earns more attention and allies than progress. Against that backdrop, an organization headed by a leader who is unapologetically optimistic about the moment we live in—about the possibility of real change and the promise of what lies ahead—is nothing short of transformational.
Each day, Jill brought that sense of fearless optimism and resolve to our work at the Partnership. She led with a steadfast belief that we can and must do better each day and that, if we did, transformational change was possible. That tenacious resolve propelled us forward and made the pursuit of excellence a contagion.
Even more important, Jill led fearlessly. We often invoke the Martin Luther King Jr. quote, “Faith is taking the first step even when you cannot see the whole staircase.” Jill’s leadership gave us the courage to take those first steps—first, by agreeing to lead the organizational reboot eleven years ago, and then when the Diocese of Cleveland invited us to bring our model of Catholic school management to support four of its struggling schools. In 2020, responding to a pandemic also required us all to lead through the unknown, without playbook or agenda.
Fearless leadership, though, doesn’t just ask that we step into the breach. It says, “I will go there with you, share in your success, and take responsibility for missteps.” It was Jill’s courage of conviction that gave the rest of us the space we needed to do what our students and school communities need.
3. Pursue excellence. Always.
Since the Partnership began as a school management organization, over 900 Catholic schools have closed across the U.S., a disproportionate number of which served working class communities and communities of color. Just keeping our Partnership schools open, then, has been a monumental achievement.
Yet Jill built the Partnership from the beginning with the goal of overcoming “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” The ambitious levels of fundraising she pursued reflected her understanding that urban Catholic schools need to be great if they are going to continue to be, and to be worthy of the students they serve.
Jill inspired us to excellence in every corner of our work, supporting a vision that drove life-changing outcomes for our students. She did this by first holding herself to an unapologetically high bar for excellence in everything she did, and then by asking the same of everyone else. This combination of drive and humility helped create the conditions where true excellence can take root.
In sum, Jill built an organization whose quest to do better is relentless and ongoing.
At a time when the news is dominated by people we are trying to tear down, we should make a conscious effort to learn from those around us who are building something better for all. For those of us who had the privilege of working alongside Jill at the Partnership, we will endeavor to take those lessons with us into the future and to ensure the seeds she has planted take root for the long term.