Pathways to Excellence

Aug 8th, 2019 | Category: Columns
By Janet Klotz

Chicagoland Lutheran Educational Foundation and Concordia University Chicago: A Unique Partnership Initiative

A History of Leadership, Service, and Innovation

In the fall of 1993, the idea to organize a “coalition of Lutheran and other Christian corporate leaders in order to support, promote and secure the future of Lutheran elementary and secondary schools in the Chicagoland area” became a reality known as the Chicagoland Lutheran Educational Foundation (CLEF). With a shared sense of vision and mission and a fervent belief in the power and faithfulness of their Lord and Savior, the original board of directors vowed to underwrite 100 percent of all organizational operating expenses so that 100 percent of all contributions would go directly to the schools to help thousands of students each year. Today, the current board of directors faithfully carries on the tradition of underwriting 100 percent of all CLEF’s operational costs.

Since the founding by dedicated Christian men and women 26 years ago, CLEF has provided over $30 million in educational funding, scholarship support, classroom resources and innovative programs to Lutheran schools in the greater Chicago area. The 23 CLEF schools have over 5,574 years of combined teaching experience and roughly 5,295,300 hours of combined instructional time. Through it all, CLEF remains dedicated to transforming children’s lives through education. Its mission is to empower urban Lutheran schools to deliver an innovative, high quality, Christian, values-based education in a safe, supportive, and nurturing environment.

Origin of the Pathways Initiative and Partnerships

About three years ago, CLEF partnered with Concordia University Chicago (CUC) through CUC’s Center for Literacy, and in collaboration with the consulting firm of Davidoff Mission-Driven Business Strategy, to create the Pathways to Excellence initiative. The three-year initiative, generously funded by Dean and Rosemarie Buntrock, is designed to provide principals, administrators, and teachers with the updated skills and technology necessary to promote excellence in student learning. Pathways is an educational adaptation of the Romans 12:2 directive to “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” The Pathways program also addresses the need for school leadership to implement new ways to insure that their schools remain viable and sustainable, by providing the financial and education tools to thrive in today’s challenging educational environment. Pathways recognizes the unique circumstances and needs of each school and adapts its curriculum and content to meet those specific needs.

Through the development and implementation of multiple and creative proprietary teaching and training modules, this unique and comprehensive multi-tiered program has offered new insights into educational leadership, classroom curriculum and instruction, as well as valuable assessment tools. All with a singular focus of empowering and encouraging educators to guide their students to achieve academic excellence through personal growth, expert teaching, coaching, and enhanced learning techniques. The role of Concordia-Chicago in providing over 150 years of educational expertise along with modern-day learning and training techniques is fundamental and essential to Pathways’ success.

For the CLEF partnership, CUC faculty members and staff from multiple departments, including especially the Center for Literacy, are providing relevant, practical and real-world protocols for all phases of the initiative. For example, Concordia’s instructional design and technology team managed both content architecture and a digital media portal that enhanced the functionality and availability of critical training tools for all participants. Leadership faculty delivered administrative content courses to principals. The Center for Literacy faculty created an instructional coaching and plan-of-study program. Science faculty assisted with the development of a new STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) path of study, and aided in the planning of CLEF’s annual fall Lutheran School Networking Conference.

Pathways Program Architecture and Rationale

The educational landscape in Chicago, like that of many urban cities, is complex and competitive. All schools, whether public, private, or parochial, face daunting challenges related to their budget, administration, instruction, safety, and quality of education. While parents have a variety of educational choices they are still limited by socio-economic barriers, location, transportation, gangs, and many other real-world variables. The Pathways Program, along with its many practical benefits, supports faith-based schools that serve as the bedrock for many socially, linguistically, and economically diverse communities. These schools provide a high-quality education dedicated to helping students realize the greatness for which they were made (Schoenig, 2017). For generations, these schools have played an invaluable role in the American educational landscape. “They are part of our Nation’s proud story of religious freedom and tolerance, community development, immigration and assimilation, academic achievement, upward mobility, and more” (DOE, 2008, p. 1).

In many neighborhoods with a Lutheran school nearby, the choice often hinges on whether the school is safe, what financial assistance is available, and what kind of values are taught to the students. The importance of the Lutheran school option in these neighborhoods is vital, as it provides parents with the peace of mind that their children will be learning in a safe and supportive, values- based Christian environment. Though the number of faith-based schools are diminishing over time, the US Department of Education found that

First, faith-based schools improve student learning. Second, faith-based schools have a greater positive impact on minority students. And third, faith-based schools’ positive influence grows as students’ socio-economic status falls; that is, the more disadvantaged the student, the greater the benefits of a faith-based education. (2008, p. 7)

The Christian values and morals embodied in a Lutheran education—caring, compassion, forgiveness, grace, inclusiveness and service—make our schools a welcoming alternative to public education.

In order to remain competitive, the quality of our Lutheran schools must continuously improve. Teale et al. (2007) note that the persistent achievement gap in the educational learning environment of many urban schools, can often best be addressed through in faith-based schools (Teale et al., 2007). At the core of the Pathways to Excellence initiative is the solid educational foundation and symbiotic relationships, mission, expertise, and commitment of our principals, teachers, CLEF, and CUC.

Pathways to Excellence in a Nutshell

Pathways to Excellence was designed to renew and refresh the inherent servant’s heart within each principal, teacher and staff member that serves in our Lutheran educational system. Using their gifts to benefit their students and families is their mission and their calling. They honor their Lord with their teaching and caring, with their love and leadership, and ultimately by serving with all their heart as the Spirit directs. Pathways to Excellence is designed to be practical, actionable and customized to identify challenges, create individualized solutions, reinforce school culture and encourage behavioral changes that result in the implementation of strategic school and classroom improvement plans. Pathways is a rigorous program which requires time, attention, and deliberate effort from participants in order to apply their learning from Day One to begin effecting improvements in their school. This rigor and discipline in application and behavioral change is critical to the success of our Lutheran schools today and into the future.

In the first year of Pathways, the focus was on the principal as the instructional, business, and inspirational leader of the school. Each principal was given instruction, leadership coaching, training, and support in preparing a strategic plan for their school and in appreciating how it informs the work of his or her teachers and students. This phase was driven by the combined efforts and expertise of CLEF, CUC and Davidoff Mission-Driven Business Strategy over a period of 10 months. In addition to coursework, assignments, and one-on-one expert coaching, each principal developed a customized, strategic improvement plan for his/her school.

In the second year of Pathways, CUC’s Center for Literacy rolled out a two-pronged professional-development program designed to strengthen teachers’ foundational skills in literacy instruction. Similar to year one, this phase made extensive use of one-on-one coaching, with in-classroom coaching for all teachers to assist in meeting the unique instructional needs of every student. This ongoing professional development with instructional coaching, ongoing professional development and curricular articulation establishes and promotes Lutheran schools as 21st-century centers of innovative literacy and faith-based practices. Also in year two, the principals continued work with their leadership coaches to develop their schools’ strategic improvement plans. They received training in the area of social-emotional intelligence while also receiving valuable preparation in marketing, enrollment, recruitment, and retention.

In year three, the principal and teacher programs continued, and a unique Medallion program for CLEF schools was introduced. A Medallion school is recognized and rewarded for achieving the following rubrics:

•   School leadership—governance and evaluation

•   School leadership—financial sustainability and enrollment

•   Student learning and academic excellence

•   School health and wellness

In order to appreciate school boards, year three also introduced school-board-member workshops including topics such as: board function and roles, best practices, alignment of governance policy with school goals and objectives, fundraising, and the importance of financial sustainability.

The Journey Continues with HEART—an Everyday Miracle

The Pathways to Excellence program, while launched as a three-year initiative with the educational goal of academic excellence in a Christian school, is meant to be a journey not a destination. To paraphrase a famous running-shoe slogan, this is a journey that begins in life and ends in eternity with real souls held firmly by God’s grace and forgiveness. Think of it. The journey of Pathways is a heavenly journey! The students in CLEF schools are on this journey with us because of this unique partnership.

It has been evident from the very first step on Pathways to Excellence, evident from the beginning of our partnership with CUC, and evident while with working with all the servant leaders and teachers at every CLEF school, that each and every person involved embraces and demonstrates a servant’s HEART. In his book, The Heart of Leadership, author Mark Miller (2013) writes that effective and inspirational leadership is all about HEART, and the resulting leadership character. Here is how he describes the traits that constitute the HEART of leadership-character:

•   Hunger for Wisdom—personal development is a high priority

•   Expect the Best—when difficulties arise I remain optimistic

•   Accept Responsibility—I accept responsibility for my efforts
            and outcomes

•   Respond with Courage—I am willing to make hard decisions

•   Think Others First—I consider the needs and desires of others
            before my own (Miller, 2013)

On Pathways to Excellence, academic excellence is woven into the Christian fabric of education, all the while students are nurtured, taught and surrounded by a teacher’s love and a servant’s heart. The important work of our faith-based schools in supporting student learning in urban settings continues. This everyday miracle is truly a blessing and a joy to experience for all involved. It’s what CLEF means with their credo: Learning—Good News—For Life. Or perhaps, Pathways—Good News—For Life. LEJ


Miller, Mark. (2013). The heart of leadership. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.

Schoenig, J. (2017) Faith-based schools matter. Here’s why: Faith-based ed. has a history of serving marginalized and immigrant communities. Education Week, 36(33), p. 22.

Teale, W., Paciga, K & Hoffman, J. (2007). Beginning reading instruction in urban schools: The curriculum gap ensures a continuing achievement gap. The Reading Teacher, 61(4), pp. 344–348.

U.S. Department of Education (DOE). (2017). Characteristics of Private Schools in the United States: Results from the 2015–16 Private School Universe Survey (NCES Publication No. 2017-073). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

U.S. Department of Education (DOE). (2008). Preserving a critical national asset: America’s disadvantaged students and the crisis in faith-based urban schools. Washington, DC: The White House Domestic Policy Council

Janet Klotz joined the CLEF Board of Directors in 2011 and was named executive director in 2013. A product of Lutheran schools, including Concordia University Chicago, Janet Klotz has more than 25 years’ experience in leadership and volunteer positions for many community and nonprofit organizations. As an entrepreneur and successful fundraiser, her creative and people skills serve her well in her multifaceted role as CLEF’s executive director.