S. Karen Dietrich, SSJ, Ph.D., is the executive director of Camden’s Catholic Partnership Schools, a nonprofit that unites the city’s five Catholic grammar schools: St. Joseph Pro-Cathedral, Sacred Heart, Holy Name, St. Cecilia, and St. Anthony of Padua. Just five years old, this innovative, collaborative model is thriving, educating about 1000 students across its campuses. Ninety-three percent of Partnership families live below the poverty line, yet one of the partnership schools boasts a high school graduation rate of over 90% among its alumni, compared to less than 25% at the two Camden City public high schools.
S. Karen, who has worked as a high school science teacher and principal of Mount St. Joseph Academy in suburban Philadelphia, brings over 35 years of experience to the Partnership. She was gracious enough to answer a few questions for this Ampersand Catholic Schools Week feature.
Ampersand: What do you love about working with the Catholic Partnership Schools? What is most challenging?
S. Karen: Somewhere deep in my soul is a firm belief that God invited me to bring all I knew about education after 30+ years, particularly Catholic education, to the children and families of Camden. Transferring skills and having the opportunity to engage daily about such diverse activities as curriculum and leaky roofs, marketing campaigns and the role of the arts in education, analysis of assessments and implementation of literacy initiatives, and oversight of development efforts, including meeting with benefactors…all in the same week…I LOVE it! I LOVE going to see the children and watching their basketball games and building bookcases with them. There is no doubt that directing an organization that is totally responsible for ensuring a God-focused, nurturing, foundational education for 1000 children is a huge challenge. Actually, having the privilege to be part of the challenge of firmly establishing a successful model is incredibly exciting to me.
What has surprised you the most in your work? What are you most proud of?
Perhaps I was most surprised by the harsh reality so many of our children and families grapple with day in and day out. I continue to be surprised by their determination and perseverance in pursuing a better future for their children. Everyone deserves that. Our parents take first day of school pictures and stand up applauding their little ones at Christmas shows and graduations. I’m surprised when visitors exclaim, “Oh, wow…they’re just like my children.” Yes, of course they are.
I am proud of many things, for sure. I am proud that we are in our fifth year of this quite unique model and we continue to have five thriving schools, maintaining 1000 children, and that we are debt-free. I am proud that our children’s proficiency scores are steadily rising and that, although we still have a way to go, they are among the highest in the city of Camden. I rejoice that we are able to offer boys and girls athletics teams and a Partnership Choir and a 100-piece Partnership orchestra. I am proud that more and more of our children have the foundation and support to access excellent college-prep high schools. I am proud that we are establishing a replicable model for strengthening and sustaining Catholic, urban education.
What factors have contributed to your success in the city?
An incredible team…a partnership of wonderful, committed people… principals and teachers and maintenance folks and front office staff, and lunch ladies and parents and coaches and support workers and counselors and … generous donors with wide-open arms and treasures to share who believe in our children and the mission of Catholic education.
What are your hopes for the students and families who come to the Partnership for education?
That we will honor the great trust the families place in us by bringing their children to our schools. That the children will know the great promise that God has given each of them. That we will have all the resources we need to continue to fulfill our mission of providing a strong and holistic education that will set the children in our care on a path that confirms for them “a future full of hope.”
Why is the CPS initiative such a crucial project for the Catholic Church to support?
Because without question, ministering with the poor and marginalized — ministering through a faith-filled, enriching, excellent academic education — is at the very heart of the legacy and mission of the Church.