A CLEF Board Member’s Perspective on Pathways to Excellence

Aug 8th, 2019 | Category: Uncategorized
By Michael Welch

It has been my privilege to have served on the Board of Directors of the Chicagoland Lutheran Educational Foundation (CLEF) for the past 18 years. When CLEF was first founded in 1993 by individuals concerned about the declining state of Lutheran education in Chicago, the organization solicited whatever money it could, and then simply distributed it to the Chicago Lutheran schools, primarily for scholarships and capital improvements. The thinking at that time was that the needs of the schools were tied to financial concerns, without focusing on the underlying reasons why these schools were experiencing declining enrollment.

As CLEF matured, so did its approach to partnering with the schools. While CLEF has continued to provide our Lutheran schools with scholarship and other monetary support, we recognized that the schools would only be able to thrive if the principals and teachers at the schools were properly trained and equipped to meet the needs of 21st-century education. Thus, the current mission of CLEF is “To empower urban Lutheran schools to deliver innovative, quality education in a Christian environment.”

The primary driver of this new approach came from the fact that there had been a significant shift in the make-up of the students attending Lutheran schools. Whereas at one time Lutheran congregations produced enough students to fill the schools, that number declined beginning in the 1980s, a trend that has continued to the present. Thus, in order to attract students from outside the congregation, particularly in light of the alternative of free public education, the schools needed to provide a high-quality education that appropriately prepared students for high schools and the challenges of life that they soon would be facing. At the same time, it was imperative that Lutheran schools continued to provide the religious training and Christ-centered culture that had always been their hallmark. While we were confident of our Lutheran schools’ ability to deliver on the latter, we determined that CLEF needed to focus on providing our principals and teachers with the tools to deliver a high-quality education that exceeded the education provided by the local public schools and other educational options available to parents.

A secondary driver was the inability of many Lutheran schools to pay their principals and teachers a decent salary. While the dedication of these individuals to their students and families is inspiring, a byproduct of this was that many teachers were so focused on their day-to-day duties that they could not take part in meaningful professional development. The result was a wonderfully caring environment but a pedagogy that was stuck to a large extent in the concepts that the teachers had learned while in college. While CLEF is currently focused on professional development of teachers and administrators, it intends to address the compensation needs of our school staffs as part of its long-term strategic planning.

Thus, for a while, CLEF intermittently sponsored professional-development programs, made efforts to improve the curricula and educational materials offered at the schools, and provided new technology for teachers and students. The hope was that by providing these tools, the staffs at Lutheran schools would apply them in ways that would lead to the academic improvements necessary to sustain the schools into the future. Having not seen the results that we had hoped for in the schools, however, CLEF, in 2016, embarked on a major strategic planning process and determined that we needed to make a major investment in assisting the schools to improve the quality of the education they offered. Therefore, we adopted two key strategic initiatives into our new strategic plan.

The first strategic initiative was “To Foster Leadership and Professional Development in Lutheran Schools” and the second strategic initiative was “Improve the Quality of Lutheran Education in Chicago.” Specific action steps to implement these initiatives were identified, and led to the formation of the team of CLEF personnel, Concordia University Chicago professors and the CUC Literacy Center, and the knowledgeable and experienced consultants at Davidoff Mission-Driven Business Strategy. This dynamic team has spent countless hours in developing and implementing the Pathways to Excellence program. This is by far the largest financial commitment that CLEF has made in its history toward its mission and its core belief that students and families in Chicago Lutheran schools should not have to choose between the loving and safe Christian environment schools have historically provided and a high-quality education.

The CLEF Board firmly believes that the success of any school is directly correlated to the leadership of that school, and that leadership’s ability to strategically plan for the future sustainability of their school. Therefore, much of the Pathways to Excellence program was devoted to providing school principals and administrators with leadership training that allows them to look beyond the day-to-day operation of the school to strategically plan for the future, and then engage all of the school’s stakeholders in understanding, embracing, and executing against that strategic plan.

In addition, the CAPS and ITI components of the Pathways program have provided teachers with the kind of systematic knowledge and hands-on coaching that one-off seminars and training programs can never achieve. Giving our teachers the opportunity to sharpen their skills as the result of their interaction with professors from Concordia who expose them to the latest thinking in education allows them to combine their current experience with innovative new ways of effectively teaching their students. The ongoing coaching provided through these programs assures that these new techniques will, in fact, be incorporated into the teachers’ classroom styles.

One of the largest challenges that CLEF has faced over the years is that each one of the Lutheran schools is autonomous, and has complete control over the operation of its school. Thus, CLEF has no direct authority to require schools to take any particular action, unlike Catholic schools which are directly controlled by the Archdiocese of Chicago. The Pathways program was always voluntary, and it was up to the individual schools to determine whether to engage in the program. Thus, we recognized that in order to ask the principals and teachers at the schools to take time out of their busy schedules to engage in the Pathways to Excellence program, CLEF needed to have a compelling value proposition that would demonstrate measurable improvements in the schools’ quality of education. CLEF is gratified by the overwhelmingly positive response of principals and teachers to the Pathways programs. We believe that the Pathways to Excellence programs to date have delivered and exceeded our articulated value proposition, and that the Medallion program will provide the basis on which our schools can thrive in the future in a very competitive environment.

As an adjunct to these comprehensive professional-development programs, our donors have enabled CLEF to provide many other services to Chicago Lutheran schools, such as nursing and health-care services, technology support, marketing assistance, Title-funds assistance, special-education services, and assistance with state recognition and accreditation processes. All of these services contribute to schools that can offer an overall educational experience for their students and families that will continue to attract the children of congregation members as well as children from the surrounding community.

Of course, CLEF’s ability to continue to partner with Chicago Lutheran Schools in meaningful ways depends upon our ability to raise funds to carry on the great work of the Pathways to Excellence program. However, the reality is that donors today do not simply contribute to a charitable organization and say “do whatever you think is best with the money.” Donors want tangible evidence of the impact that their dollars are having on the academic progress of the students in our Lutheran schools. Our team is in the process of gathering real data that will demonstrate to our donors the wonderful academic improvements that our students and schools are making as the result of the Pathways program. This demonstrable progress will allow CLEF to establish that the Medallion program, with its rubrics as to what defines an excellent Lutheran school, will drive their sustainability into the future.

As a Board member, I want to acknowledge the tremendous work done by our Executive Director, Janet Klotz, and the generous and unwavering support of Dean and Rosemarie Buntrock, in bringing the Pathways to Excellence program to fruition. Our team of academic experts and mission-driven consultants has worked together amazingly well. We are all confident that we have set the stage for Lutheran schools in Chicago to provide a high-quality education in a Christ-centered environment to all of their students, and to sustain that effort going forward into the future through the Medallion program.

Proverbs 22:6 says “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” I had the joy of recently attending graduation ceremonies at my home church, St. James Lutheran Church, and at Grace Christian Academy, both in Chicago. I was struck by the manner in which these graduates eloquently spoke of their Lutheran educational experience, how it had prepared them for high school and, more importantly, how it had helped them understand who they are and what kind of life they want to lead. Listening to these students and being the parent of two Lutheran-school graduates, I was reminded how important it is for us to preserve this heritage and to make sure that future students have the opportunity to hear Christ’s message of salvation while receiving a top-notch education in all disciplines.

It has been my pleasure as a CLEF Board member and educator to have had the opportunity to work with our partners in the formulation and execution of the Pathways to Excellence and Medallion programs. We believe that this approach, which combines the practical and effective application of leadership, strategic planning, and academic principles to improving the quality of Chicago Lutheran schools, can be a model for future use in other parochial schools. The entire Board of Directors of CLEF is proud to be a part of this groundbreaking program to assure the sustainability of our Chicago Lutheran schools into the future. LEJ

Michael T. Welch is an Executive Instructor at the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago.  Since 2003, he has taught courses in strategic management, leadership, microenterprise consulting and the legal environment of business.  He spent 23 years at The Quaker Oats Company, last serving as the Vice President – Legal Services until 2002.  Prior to Quaker, he was an associate at Winston & Strawn.  He obtained his B.S. in Marketing and his J.D. from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. He is a member of the Board of Directors of Chicagoland Lutheran Educational Foundation (CLEF).