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Cathie Petsch: Lincoln’s Community Developer


This is not the first time Cathie Petsch has retired. Before successfully helping Lincoln’s Community Learning Centers grow from nine schools to 25 in a little over a decade, Cathie worked as a federal grant writer, high school journalism teacher, a computer network administrator, and a member of Lincoln’s school board, even serving several terms as its president.

But when Lincoln Public Schools (LPS) was awarded its initial 21st Century Schools grant in 2001, former LPS superintendent Phil Schoo tapped Petsch to help build the robust partnerships the district needed to expand the learning opportunities for its students in a much more coordinated and intentional way.
"Lincoln was so ripe for the community school work. It had all the ingredients already," Petsch said.
Before and after care had already been in place inside Lincoln schools for several decades and dozens of nonprofits worked within its schools. The city has many other resources including the state legislature, a flagship public university, and influential charitable foundations. Its large faith-based community also makes the town a magnet for refugees requiring unique educational resources for children and their families.
From her perspective, all Petsch had to do was cultivate the relationships, to weave the partners together in a coordinated way at the school site.
"What community schools do is build on that public engagement," she said.
Petsch and other Lincoln education and foundation leaders were inspired by the budding community school movement in Kansas City and around the country and sought to bring the strategy to Lincoln.
In Lincoln’s initiative, each school site has a School Neighborhood Advisory Committee that determines and manages the partnerships and services for each school site based on the needs of the entire neighborhood. These committees are comprised of parents, CBO representatives, youth, residents, and educators. A Community Leadership Council, composed of a group of community stakeholders including from the board of education and foundation leaders, is tasked with finding funding for the CLC initiative. A management team made up of Lincoln Public Schools, City Hall leaders, and the University of Nebraska guide and manage the operations of the initiative district-wide. Petsch and her long-time colleague Leann Johnson are the glue that held all of this together.
Petsch’s ability to navigate in the world of all these stakeholders has been credited for helping cultivating the sustained growth and interest in Community Learning Centers.
Since the formation of Lincoln’s Community Learning Centers (CLCs) 11 years ago, CLC students have performed markedly better on state standardized tests than their counterparts who do not attend CLCs. CLC students also lowered truancy and student mobility rates as a result over time. (Read more about Lincoln CLCs here).
The partners and community members Petsch engaged are seeing the difference. "The community sees the value in the way we keep up our buildings. Their investments in our technology is maximized," Petsch said. "We’ve proven our case."
Lea Ann Johnson, a co-coordinator of Lincoln’s Community Learning Centers, said Petsch has been taken local values about mentorship and applied them in her work with colleagues.
"Something our community knows and embraces is the importance of mentoring youth. CLCs have partnered with mentoring organizations such as TeamMates and Heartland Big Brothers Big Sisters because we know young people grow and develop positively when they have that one special relationship with a caring adult – the person that checks in with them, challenges them, and celebrates with them. Mentors make a difference," Johnson said during Petsch’s retirement ceremony earlier this summer. "Cathie did not know nor did she sign up to be my mentor but I learned from her every single day."
Now comes the next chapter in life for Petsch. She plans to spend time with her husband of 44 years and her family and grand children. She and a group of women around town have discussed plans to start a women-led consortium of consultants that could advise local businesses and organizations on companies’ various needs – not necessarily with the goal of profit.
Her mother recently left her a 40 acre plot of land at the edge of Lincoln. She has a grand vision of building a small community of patio homes for friends and associates where they can all trade and live off the land, sipping wine in the evenings and enjoying each other’s company.
Petsch said, "So I’ll become a community developer." She always has been.

Read more about Lincoln Community Learning Centers

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