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Kathleen Quirk – Partnership Schools & Duke: Authentic

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Kathleen Quirk, Chief of Staff, Partnership Schools

Alumna of Duke University (MBA, 2013) and College of the Holy Cross (BA, 2002: English)

Kathleen Quirk is Chief of Staff to the Superintendent of Partnership Schools, a school management organization that serves six urban Catholic schools and 2,100 pre-Kindergarten through 8th-grade students in the New York City area—nearly all of whom are minorities who qualify for free lunch. Her talent development, budgetary, and curricular support helps close the achievement gap for students and strengthen a pioneering organization at the forefront of an urban Catholic school renaissance. Kathleen’s unique experiences leading and supporting change across the private, public, and nonprofit sectors—coupled with her MBA advantage—make her one to watch.

What do you love the most about your job?

The mission of Partnership Schools and the people I get to work with excite me every day. Partnership Schools has a crackerjack team that is equal parts thoughtful and urgent. We are one of the first organizations nationally to create a network of support around six urban Catholic schools. We are always weighing how to both celebrate our schools’ rich history, while also adapting best practices that have helped the most successful charter schools close the achievement gap.

I also love the variety that being second in command brings. In a day, I move through topics that regularly include student performance and growth data, teacher professional development, recruitment, budgets, union compliance, and more.

The days I get to be with the dedicated school teams—the leaders and teachers working their hearts out for our students—are the most exciting for me. Hopefully, I’m helping make their jobs easier.

Which career experiences stand out for the impact they had on your path?

My most formative experience was working as a Coro Fellow in New York City, a 9-month program focused on public policy and how decisions are made across cities. Gaining this cross-sector experience early in my career shaped the rest of my path.

Additionally, it helped me hone in on my interest in education policy that led me to the New York City Department of Education (DOE), where I served as the Special Assistant to Chancellor Joel I. Klein. I managed the district’s winning application for the Broad Prize in Urban Education and worked closely with the DOE’s governing body, later focusing on accountability and measuring school performance.

What attracted you to the business side of education?

I’ve always been interested in how education can help children growing up in historically disadvantaged neighborhoods. Many say it is the social justice issue of our time.

After earning my bachelor’s, I served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps at a school in west Oakland, California. The following year, the state government closed the school and I was able to witness the repercussions for that community.

At DOE, I then had the opportunity to see change not at a local level, but through the Chancellor’s office. Change is difficult no matter which levers you have at your disposal. This led me to join Cambridge Leadership Associates (CLA), an international leadership development consulting firm. My time in consulting allowed me to later return to education with new tools to develop talent and encourage organizational change.

What inspired you to pursue your MBA?

While at CLA, I was driving business development for the firm, managing the P&L, and working to expand our footprint into new markets. The “learning on the job experience” was powerful, but I wanted to acquire additional hard skills to be more well-rounded in my career.

My MBA experience pushed me to develop sides of myself that did not come naturally. It was challenging getting through all the quant coursework, but that learning gave me a starting place and confidence as CLA’s Chief Operating Officer. I didn’t feel like things were over my head anymore and it gave (and still gives!) me the opportunity to pursue different roles that I had not previously imagined.

Are you willing to share a career blunder because you learned something constructive?

I worked on a massive technology system intended to help over 140,000 people and it ultimately failed. The team worked long, hard hours on it—but we didn’t involve the end user in a way that could change what we were building or the function of the system. We learned that an echo chamber will not make your rollout stronger—you must encourage more voices. Learning this lesson was painful but has been invaluable to my career.

What’s one of your biggest business lessons?

Share who you are. In business, I often hid my true self. Over time, I learned that while I might be occasionally “Quirk-y”—my colleagues know I am being authentic. Getting through difficult conversations and negotiations in the workplace cannot be stripped of personality.

Immediate family members in her household: Her husband
Recent Forté volunteer experience: Attendee at Forté New York special networking event; Alumna of Forté Fellows Program
Her role models: Her 98-year-old grandmother: She was among the Navy’s first WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) Officers. As a lieutenant, she was assigned to JAG to report on the congressional hearings of interest to the Navy and produce a nightly newsletter that went to the head of JAG and the Secretary of the Navy.
Words of wisdom that inspire her: “It is not the critic who counts….The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…” Theodore Roosevelt
Song that makes her turn up the volume: “The Coast,” Paul Simon

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