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On the Road for Catholic Schools

The Show Must Go On

Thursday, July 10, 2014 by Alec Torigian


When you spend a year driving a bus as a part of a national tour to celebrate the gift of Catholic education, you get pretty accustomed to a certain set of questions and comments, many of which could easily lead to a deeper discussion of our experience. However, one response sticks out in particular. Upon hearing my feeble attempt at a brief explanation of what the tour actually was, a solid handful of friends would respond, “So you’re kind of living like a rock star.”

I can see where they’d get this comparison. We did basically live on a tour bus, and we did hop off that bus routinely to throngs of screaming fans (a.k.a. a couple hundred excited children and pre-teens). There was that one time when a random student exclaimed, “I’m never going to wash this hand!” after receiving one of my high fives. Most relevant, though, was that, like the rock stars we were compared to, we knew that “the show must go on.” Things went wrong—windshield wipers broke, schedules were confused, fuel ran low (literally), traffic jammed, the bus got a bit stuck—but the show had to go on.

The only problem with this analogy is that the bus tour was never about the bus. The bus is the attention grabber. We hope eyes were caught all across the country. We hope people noticed the bus and saw where it was going. We pray that people saw that the headlights were pointing toward something bigger. If one chose to follow the path of these headlights, they’d find the much brighter beacons of hope—the Catholic schools of America. They’d see the places where the real rock stars can be found, the places where the show indeed does go on because communities realize that it must. They realize that ensuring the show goes on and schools stay open may be expensive, but that it’s far more costly for them not to.

These schools are places where we had the great privilege of seeing teachers, students, administrators, and parents fighting valiantly and joyfully to continue to uphold a tradition of faith-based academic excellence. These places, mind you, are far from perfect. Like the bus, they had cosmetic issues, were sometimes running low on the resources needed to keep going, and even experienced periods of feeling confused or stuck; but the show was going on. If you’re reading this, I imagine you’d agree that the children of our nation deserve thriving schools, and the large and small hiccups simply cannot get in the way.

I guess the bus got to play a role after all. This bus tour was a visible way to stand up and say to the world (and any one who doubts the urgent necessity of these sacred spaces we call Catholic schools), “No! The show MUST go on!” 

A Multitude of Homecomings

Monday, July 07, 2014


Written by: Andie Cisneros

My first day of formation as an ACE Teaching Fellow happened also to be my dad’s last day in the Air Force. In June 2008, he retired after twenty-five years of service, right as I was diving headlong into Catholic education. We moved often, as is typical of our kind, so the question, “Where are you from?” befuddles me. I don’t have geographic roots.

Perhaps ACE and America’s Catholic schools have provided an appropriate inversion. For me, this fifty-city, non-stop, über-mobile adventure called Notre Dame’s National Bus Tour was a year of “coming home.”

Dallas: My family settled in a Dallas suburb after Dad’s retirement, so when the bus and accompanying ACE staff descended on the Metroplex in October to kick off the tour, I was excited for the two worlds to intersect. The school events and celebrations set the tone for the rest of the tour: each embodied the interconnectivity of the mission of Catholic schools. Students, teachers, families, ACE grads, and supporters of Catholic schools packed masses, assemblies, parties, and one giant tailgate. The reality of Catholic schools as communities was obvious. Having my own family there echoed this: Catholic schools help bring together all the parts of a person, uniting faith, family, and vocation in one institution.

Milwaukee: Over the last five years, the Notre Dame ACE Academies team has spent many hours observing classes at St. Anthony Catholic School and picking the brains of their leadership. Along with dozens of other visionaries across the country, they helped us develop and refine a model that has demonstrated great success. I was glad to see the Bus Tour highlight St. Anthony, a sort of professional home-away-from-home for me, as an example of what is possible for Catholic education. Standing in an auditorium filled to capacity with just their third, fourth, and fifth graders, whose parents lined the sides and filled in the back, I grasped the scale of this success. The frequently cited narrative says Catholic schools are always struggling and always losing ground, but this school and many others like it are striving and advancing as wellsprings of inspiration. St Anthony proves that Catholic schools are fertile fields for greatness, able to generate not only booming student enrollments, but abundant energy, commitment, and aspirations.

Tucson and Tampa/St. Petersburg: Notre Dame ACE Academies has been my professional home for four years. While my office is at Notre Dame, I’ve invested hundreds of hours on-site at our partner schools, three in Arizona and two in Florida. I feel at home in these locations just as I do in South Bend. With the bus’s arrival at each site, I was again struck by the sheer number of people who make these schools noteworthy. The schools’ leaders each represented their communities with pride. Teachers, students, and parents celebrated their solidarity and their accomplishments. While the five ACE Academies share a single structural model, they each reflect their own unique histories, local legacies, and charisms. Like every Catholic school, it’s the people who give of themselves day in and day out who enrich the culture of joy and zeal to make God known, loved, and served.

Brownsville: As an ACE teacher, I taught language arts at Guadalupe Regional Middle School (GRMS) in Brownsville, Texas. My years in Room 2 made a deep imprint on my heart. GRMS is my school. The Bus Tour’s arrival at GRMS’s annual Mardi Gras fundraiser (where it served as a “float” in the midnight parade) reunited me with my students. They had returned from high school and college to contribute their time and talent at their middle school’s fundraiser—a hint of how remarkable GRMS is. These students who returned are as lively, joyful, bright, as kind, and as passionately hopeful as I had known them to be several years ago. Though we had not seen each other in years, I was still part of their community. Catholic schools do this astoundingly well: uniting strong academics with intentional individual growth, creating bonds that enable both, and sending forth students who see and serve God in all things.

Notre Dame: Eventually the ACE bus came back to its home. When we go out into the wide world, we come back home feeling both smaller and grander. After a couple of decades, ACE has been privileged to join in more than its share of ambitious ventures. The tour was a chance for us—our team of educators and an expanding support network—to reconnect with many strands of our ministry as followers of Christ the Teacher. More than that, though—far, far more than that—our collective experience of going home to the places where we served children and communities reminded us of the bold mission and vision of Catholic education. The number of gifted, driven, committed educators engaged in this mission and the dizzying scope and depth of their efforts and accomplishments remind us of the fruits of discipleship, being sent forth and returning to a welcoming home. We see more clearly who we are, where our roots are, and why we dare to undertake so great a task.

Encountering Children, Encountering Christ

Thursday, July 03, 2014


Written by: Eric Prister

The connection is simple enough—reflect on a 30,000-mile bus tour with the most famous "on the road" story in the gospels, the Road to Emmaus. But how can the story of two disciples encountering Jesus help describe the experience of the Fighting for Our Children's Future National Bus Tour?

When Jesus first appears to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the evangelist Luke tells us that "their eyes were kept from recognizing him," and "they stood still, looking sad." The disciples were experiencing an encounter with the risen Christ, but they had no idea it was him. In fact, they were sad and motionless in his presence. 

Jesus begins to walk and speak with them, interpreting the prophets for them, and their "hearts [were] burning within [them]" as he spoke to them. They have heard Jesus' call to action, but have not yet truly acted—they still continue along their way down the road. 

When they decide to stop for the night, they invite Jesus to stay with them. Then, "when he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him." Finally, the disciples know their encounter with Christ. They come to this realization—they truly see Jesus—when he is in his true element. Jesus came to die for the sins of all, to sacrifice his own body so that all may have life, and so in the breaking of the bread, the perfect symbol of his sacrifice, the disciples truly come to know him for who he really is. 

This realization doesn't just spur the disciples to awe, doesn't just make their hearts burn within them—it calls them to action. The gospel tells us that, "that same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem," which Luke says was seven miles away from Emmaus. The disciples felt compelled to immediate, drastic action because they truly saw Jesus in his truest and most profound form. 

Traveling on our own road to Emmaus, to more than 65 Catholic schools in 50 cities, we were blessed to encounter Christ is so many ways. We could see Christ in the teachers, who give of themselves every day for their children. We could see Christ in the parents, who sacrifice to provide a Catholic education for their children. We could see Christ in the administrators, the principals and pastors, who lead their community with spiritual guidance. 

The most meaningful encounter with Christ, though, the one that continued to spur us to action, rejuvenated us, and brought us back to life, was provided by the students at each school we visited. Catholic schools provide a place—safe, comfortable, and welcoming—for these children to be their truest selves. They are able to do the things children are supposed to do—learn, experience new things, grow as human beings—in an environment of love, which allows them to be true beacons of Christ. 

As I look back fondly on the past year, the experiences far too numerous to recall, the one thing I'll remember most vividly is the joy of the children we encountered. This memory is what continues to keep my heart burning within me, and will constantly spur me to immediate, drastic action in support of Catholic schools. 

Bus Tour Highlights Enduring Bonds and Blessings

Monday, June 30, 2014

BlessTheCornerThe music of the Notre Dame Folk Choir has been an important source of inspiration and joy for me since I first heard it over a decade ago as an undergraduate student at Our Lady’s University. Given that personal significance, and the fact that the tour reached the four corners of the continental United States, it is really no surprise that one of the ensemble’s songs, Bless the Corners, came to mind as I reflected on my experience with the Fighting for Our Children’s Future National Bus Tour. Based on a traditional Irish prayer that begins as a house blessing, the text expands to ask a blessing on the wider world and ultimately speaks of our common bonds as Children of God.

The first verse contains the text:

“Bless the door that opens wide, welcome warm to guest and kin,
Bless each shining window, Lord; let the light of gladness in!”

The first line of this phrase captures the generous hospitality we received in every community. Each school threw open their doors (or fence gates as appropriate when arriving in a 35-foot bus) and enthusiastically welcomed us; some even greeted us with a rendition of the Notre Dame Victory March or Notre Dame, Our Mother. Although our visits were brief in the context of a school year, we were nevertheless graciously invited to enter into the life of every institution and encounter the students and teachers, staff and administrators, parents and supporters in a meaningful way. We joined together to celebrate the positive impact Catholic schools have on children, families, and communities.

The “light of gladness” was evident at each school we visited, too. The joy in these communities was palpable in assemblies that began or ended with the entire school singing or dancing. Students offered reflections about their educational experiences that exuded school pride and gratitude. Bus visits were often an opportunity for the school to revel in the academic, artistic, and athletic achievements of its children. In many places, our visits were also an occasion to celebrate the school’s rich cultural diversity through presentations showcasing the students’ ethnic heritage or performances rooted in the community’s folk traditions, such as Mariachi and Folklórico ensembles.

As the traditional Irish prayer continues, the focus shifts from the home to the broader world in the second verse and calls for this blessing:

“Bless the dreams that lift our hands! Dreams to set our children free.”

The hopes and dreams of parents to put their children on a path to academic and personal success are clearly visible in each Catholic school. After my journey with the ACE Bus, I’m convinced now more than ever that Catholic education is a truly sacred endeavor. These schools seek not only to instill in their students a greater knowledge of the facts of history, the formulas of math and science, and the facets of the arts, but also bring them to a greater understanding of themselves as Children of God and aid them in their pursuit of holiness. In New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton wrote, “For me to be a saint means to be myself.” What greater gift can be given to a child than not only educating her mind, but also helping her to better know herself and in doing so fortifying her relationship with the Creator?

The final verse of Bless the Corners declares:

“Heaven's doors are open wide! Guest and stranger, bound by love.
Every nation, come inside! Held in hope by God above.”

Even though my work at ACE started only a few months ago, I was blessed to participate in tour stops in 14 cities. Seeing as I recently joined the organization and did not come to it through one of its professional programs, I occasionally felt like a bit of a stranger as the new kid on the team with a lot to learn. However, traveling with the bus was a marvelous experience, and I began to feel more at home. With each school I visited, I gained a better appreciation for the profound bond ACE shares with a diverse range of school communities across the country because of their common mission to equip every student with the tools to achieve college and heaven. The mission springs from the love of God and neighbor, as well as the identity we all share as Children of God.

Excerpts from Bless the Corners, text adapt. by Steven C. Warner, copyright © 2009, World Library Publications, wlpmusic.com. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

The Miracle of Yes

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Written by: Drew Clary

Miracles are enabled by saying "yes." Although the heavy lifting of bringing these phenomenon into the world is clearly on God's side of the ledger, it is a bit arresting to think that for every miracle, there is some element of human agency, even if it is the seemingly simple act of an open-armed "yes".

MiracleofYesThis statement and stance--and the ease with which they arise in Catholic schools—are what stunned me time and again during Notre Dame's Fighting for our Children's Future National Bus Tour. My experience brought me to the conclusion that saying "yes" is the quintessential characteristic of what makes Catholic schools so effective. When we initially contacted the schools, we were hoping to visit, to see if we could stop by with "the ACE bus" (which doubtless made way more sense to us than it did to anyone else), we received welcoming and positive responses from the schools with which we have partnered in the past. More surprising, however, were the agreeable reactions we received from other schools with which we had not worked previously.

Once we had contacted the schools—and their respective (arch)dioceses—it was time to start planning our events at the schools. We continued to be blessed with the "yes." We asked things like, "Can we have Mass in your school chapel afterwards?" or "Can you reserve a parking space on the road in front of your school for the 36-foot bus?" or "Will there be special or distinctive student groups—choirs, bands, robotics teams, karate classes--who can display their skills?" or "Can one of our priests offer the homily at your school Mass?" or "Can we invite students from neighboring schools as well?" Time and again, the answer was "yes."

This might sound surprising to the casual observer, but it is not really any different from a normal day in a Catholic school. "Can we find a way to offer a cultural dance club to our students?" "Can we change the class schedule so our kids aren't outside for PE when the school across the street dismisses?" "Can I get tuition assistance to send my child to your school?" "Will you pray for my family at Mass this week because my sister was in a car accident last night?" You can predict the typical response to these questions.

Although counter-intuitive for a school system challenged by fiscal hardships, Catholic schools are thriving with the attitude of "yes". Although this spirit may seem all the more unlikely given the largely negative (and equally incorrect) narratives that distort the "conventional wisdom," the simple miracle of Catholic schools' perseverance is somehow trivial compared to the thousands of miracles they make possible every single day in the lives of the students and families they serve. From closing the achievement gap for marginalized children to the numerous baptisms performed and faith-lives reignited, to the gifted and energetic teachers who are willing and eager to do more for their students with less in their classroom budgets and take-home pay, the miracles are commonplace.

My prayer in the wake of this national pilgrimage to visit and thank the people of these schools will be for a commitment to the attitude of "yes" that may in some small way spark the human agency needed to bring the God-made miracle of high-quality education to the millions of precious children who richly deserve a "yes" in their lives.

Celebrating the Harvest

Monday, June 16, 2014


Written by: Garrett Mandeville

As the tour draws to its conclusion, I can’t help but look back on what we have learned and what we have lived. There are many memories that stand out. Each stop had its own particular flavor and beauty. Reconnecting with friends and graduates in each city was incredible, but I can’t ignore the fact that the greatest joy that I experienced throughout was always found with the students of the schools we visited. Recognizing this, my mind is persistently drawn back to a Mass that we celebrated in the ACE house in Santa Ana.

After finishing a raucous school visit complete with Baile Folklorico, student speakers, and Fr. Scully and the bishop wearing Cinco de Mayo sombreros, we headed to the ACE house for a brief team Mass. Our ACE team was joined by another member of the ACE family, an ENL student named Elizabeth. We went around the room introducing ourselves and giving a brief description of our roles with the organization. When Elizabeth’s turn arrived, she talked about a long career spent teaching in Catholic schools, of hard work, of lives transformed, and of the transformative impact on her own life. She talked about the fight for Catholic schools being one worth fighting as an essential ministry. Her passion and commitment articulated even more deeply by the tears through which she spoke, she talked about showing these students that they are not just the seeds; they are the harvest.

This image has been one that has stuck close to me ever since that blazing morning in early May. When talking about the work being done in Catholic schools, I so often conceptualize it as a planting of those seeds. While that is absolutely part of the picture, there is an abundance far greater that I often ignore.

Elizabeth unlocked the beauty of this bus tour for me: a celebration of the harvest. We were able to recognize, honor, and take joy in the amazing students, teachers, and school leaders across the entire country.

Far too often the Catholic schools narrative reads like an obituary. This tour was the antithesis of an obit; there is more life in these schools than ever, and we were so privileged to see it, celebrate it, and have a small part in it.

What a tour, what an adventure, and what an amazing opportunity. The past eight months witnessed 30,000 miles, 50 cities, and over 70 schools, but most of all, the tour witnessed the incredible harvest found in our Catholic schools. We need to keep planting seeds, but this year is one that I will always remember for the rich harvest that I was so blessed to see.

Catholic schools are good for America. And the harvest is ripe.

The Holy Spirit Alive in Catholic Schools

Thursday, June 12, 2014 by Fr. Lou DelFra, C.S.C.


During the Easter season, which formally came to a close this past Sunday at Pentecost, we traditionally read from the Acts of the Apostles—the often zany, always exhilarating stories of the growth of the early Church. It tells the story of a group of people who went from a handful of scared men and women, locked in an upper room in Jerusalem after the terrifying apparent disaster of the Crucifixion, to the abrupt, indeed miraculous, transformation of these disciples into cannot-be-contained missionaries for the Gospel, leading to the eventual conversion of nothing less than the Roman Empire, at the time the more or less “ends of the earth.”

In particular, I think about the long, and utterly unpredictable, line that connects that first handful of disciples’ belief in the resurrected Christ, to my grandparents’ belief to my parents’ and to mine. In some way, I believe in Jesus Christ, not just because the first disciples came to believe, but because after they came to believe, that belief drove them out of that locked room in Jerusalem and impelled them to share their faith to anyone who would listen—promising and unpromising audiences alike. And the Church, in every one of her evolutions and movements ever since, has digested and so re-enlivened this missionary impulse. Pope Francis’ first exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” is saturated with this apostolic drive not to turn inward in our belief, but to allow our faith to transform us continually into a disposition of evangelization.

I guess, in a blog about a 30,000-mile trans-national bus tour, you can see where this is going! The good news of the work of the Holy Spirit in America’s Catholic schools is – like every other message of the Holy Spirit—meant to be shared. So that, in the sharing, the entire community is uplifted and expanded.

What I love most about my experience on the ACE bus tour, as I reflect on it through the lens of the Acts of the Apostles, is that Acts is not a story of the apostles simply bringing the new life and encouragement of the Holy Spirit to others who need it. Rather, Acts is filled with story after story of the apostles coming to recognize, and so coming to be stretched and encouraged and ultimately emboldened by the presence of the Spirit at work everywhere they went. It is a story that explains why the Church must always be missionary—it is in the coming together of people who believe, of people in whom the Spirit is doggedly at work, that the Church is continually re-energized and grown.

As a believer, as an advocate of the mission of Catholic schools, as a priest, my vocation has been so enlivened and enriched, stretched, encouraged and re-invigorated by the so-palpable presence of the Holy Spirit in the leaders, teachers, students, and Catholic school supporters we had the privilege of meeting at each of our stops. So many who believe in, and have given their lives to, and are filled with evident joy by, the mission of our Catholic schools. I return more convinced than ever—this is a message that must constantly impel us outward, so that more and more people can see the good news that Catholic schools have to share.

The Warmth of Home: A Reflection by Our Co-founders

Monday, June 09, 2014

As we welcome the bus home, we look ahead to a bright future for Catholic schools with a series of reflections on the tour—the lessons learned, the joys perceived, and the impact Catholic schools are having on students, teachers, and many others all over the country. Our first reflection is from ACE co-founders: Fr. Tim Scully, csc and Fr. Sean McGraw, csc. 


Anyone of us who has been invited to celebrate a special occasion such as Thanksgiving or the 4th of July in the house of an acquaintance has experienced the cordiality and measured warmth of being a guest. However welcomed, one’s status as a guest is relatively clearly demarcated and felt. Though invited to take part in the family’s celebrations, there always exists a bit of a distance. Those who comprise the family are bounded together with a familiar idiom, habitual patterns, inside humor and all the trappings that come with familiarity. In such situations, it is common to be invited into the dining room for meals or even the often unused living room for conversation—places where the family itself rarely gathers.WarmthOfHomeBlog

Contrast the experiences of being a guest to that of coming home. When one returns home, cordiality and measured warmth are replaced by unbounded laughter and well-worn friendship. One quickly luxuriates in ties that know and lovingly accept the idiosyncrasies and even embrace the peculiarities of family members. Coming home, it would never occur to anyone to share a meal in the dining room or conversation in the living room. Rather, one bounds past these to instantly gather in the kitchen and the family room. It is a time when you take your shoes off and put your feet up.

Twenty years ago in early January, 1994, we began our journey to our initial eight partner dioceses as guests. Arriving at school after school in a rented Ford Taurus, we hammered out the broad contours of what would become ACE Teaching Fellows. We were literally “making it up as we went along,” trying our best to persuade one skeptical audience after the next. The superintendents, principals, teachers and pastors with whom we met welcomed us with characteristic Southern hospitality. Little by little we learned that Southern Hospitality was extended to Yankees like ourselves a thimble full at a time! Despite our utter ignorance—let’s face it, neither of us had any formal or informal training in education—ultimately our hosts took a chance on us. How could we ever forget, for example, the moment when an ageing and deeply experienced woman religious in Savannah broke the deafening silence of a rather tense initial meeting with the words, “the proof is in the pudding. . . .let’s give these kids a chance!”

Contrast this initial journey of ours two decades ago with the genuine warmth with which we were greeted in each of the fifty-five stops and over the 30,000 miles we traveled crisscrossing America these past months. We were welcomed as members of the family, not as guests, in each of these partner cities and dioceses. We were met now, not by strangers, but as good friends and fellow missionary disciples. At each stop, we breezed past the dining and living rooms and were invited to gather with the family around the warmth of the kitchen hearth. What we experienced was the collective gratitude, deepened commitment, and strengthened hope in our shared passion for the gift of Catholic education. The countenances of the thousands of school children who greeted us at each stop told the story best. How can we not celebrate the “Joy of the Gospel” when encountering the unbridled enthusiasm of the children we are blessed to serve.

Another Child Every Day

Wednesday, May 14, 2014


"Does ACE really stand for 'another child every day?'"

At first, the question took me off guard—I was heading out of Our Lady of Fatima School in Modesto, California, and I was barely paying attention to those around me.

"No," I almost started to say. "ACE stands for the Alliance for Catholic Education. We aim to strengthen, sustain, and transform Catholic schools around by the country by offering a suite of services that..." 

But the little girl who asked me didn't want that answer. She was quite content with hers, and I couldn't help but nod.

Another child every day—what exactly does that mean?

Those of us at ACE, and especially those of us who have been on the Fighting for Our Children's Future National Bus Tour through forty-eight cities, feel like we have the mission of ACE down pretty well. We've been asked about it so often, it almost comes as second nature.

This little girl, with one simple question, completely shifted my way of thinking about what the mission of ACE is. Does ACE mean another child every day?

The focus of ACE is about transforming Catholic schools. It's about helping dioceses, educating leaders, providing choice for parents, and sustaining the thousands of sacred places serving civic purposes. At the end of the day, though, the focus of ACE is on exactly what that girl said it was—the focus is on the children.

We've traveled around the country for nearly eight months to help promote Catholic schools because we believe that every child, no matter his or her situation, deserves the right to a quality education, the type that can be found in Catholic schools. Children are of the utmost importance, but the girl in Modesto found a perfectly simple way of expressing that fully—another child every day.

One child can make a difference, and so one chance at a quality education—one scholarship, one tuition check, one seat in a classroom, one dynamic teacher—can be life-changing, and can be world-changing. As a woman who joined us for mass in Santa Ana, California said, "remember that these children are not the seed; they are the harvest."

A fifty-city national bus tour has the benefit of allowing a broad-scope view of the state of Catholic education in our country, and this view is a bright one. It can be easy to forget, though, that Catholic education isn't just a broad-scope issue. Catholic education is important down to the diocese, to the city, to the school, and to the student. These children are our future, a future that we believe is worth fighting for.

As we finish our tour and for the months and years to come, we'll remember that little girl from Our Lady of Fatima, and we'll remember what ACE really does stand for—another child every day.

The ACE Bus is Coming!

Monday, May 05, 2014

IMG 2990

Written by: Drew Clary

"The ACE bus is coming!"

"A bus is coming!"

"A bus is coming?"

This is the reaction I imagine many of those—students and faculty alike—have when they first hear about our visits to their school as part of the Fighting for Our Children's Future National Bus Tour.

I'm sure this news is met with some excitement, but there must be some confusion as well. What exactly do we mean by a bus? Who's on this bus? Are there celebrities on the bus? Kids?

All this changes as soon as the bus actually comes around the corner and the students see it for the first time.

Recently at our stop at St. Vincent de Paul School in Phoenix, Arizona, the students reacted as we hadn't yet seen through forty-two cities. As soon as the bus came into view, kids (who were out on their fenced-in playground) sprinted toward it, pushing up against the fence to get a good view, and then ran down the driveway into the school, waving the bus to its final parking space.

Why are these children so excited about a big bus? Not to be overly humble, but it's probably not the passengers they're excited about. And while the children no doubt love their school, in many cases there's a chance it's not that either.

These students showed, and almost all we've visited have shown, a pure, unbridled enthusiasm they can't help but shower on us. It's a refreshing enthusiasm, one so rarely experienced as we get older because it has no contingencies—these children and the thousands of others like them all around the country are excited to be alive, they are excited to be exactly where they are, but most importantly, they are just plain excited. How blessed are we, and they, that the schools they attend allow this joy to flow forth.

Every time we walk off the bus to a cheering crowd of students, we get a chance to remember how truly blessed we are. We at ACE truly do have something to be excited about, just like the faculty and staff of all the Catholic schools around the country have something to be excited about—the life-giving, pure and unadulterated joy shown each and every day by the students in Catholic schools.

Notre Dame ACE Academies Display That "Special Something"

Friday, May 02, 2014


Written by: Eric Prister

For those who know about Notre Dame ACE Academies, the stats come quickly—enrollment nearly doubling; students testing in the seventeenth percentile jumping to the fifty-second percentile; kindergarteners and first graders testing in the ninety-first percentile in reading.

After visiting each of the two ACE Academies in Tucson—St. John the Evangelist and Santa Cruz—I can say without a doubt, though, that these schools are far more than statistics. Something special is going on at these schools, something hard to identify but something that permeates the whole school atmosphere.

The Fighting for Our Children's Future National Bus Tour has now made its way through forty-two cities, visiting nearly sixty schools over the course of seven months and a handful of days, and we've seen many great schools succeeding in a variety of different ways. When we pull into an ACE Academy, though (or another school that also has that "something special"), it's immediately obvious.

It starts as soon as we arrive—students are cheering as the bus pulls up, they greet us as we exit, looking us in the eye and saying, "welcome to our school." We can tell from the way they say it that they're not just happy to be out of class for an hour. They're proud of the school they attend, and they're overjoyed that they have a chance to show it off to us.

That "special something" can be seen in the teachers and administrators, who are also proud to be members of the team that runs the school. They tell us just how blessed they feel to have us there, and they genuinely mean it—they aren't bothered by the interruption of their day (though they certainly couldn't be blamed for doing so!) and their control over their class doesn't waiver for a moment, even amidst the jubilation.

As the principal greets us and begins the pep rally or mass, we can see that "special something" again. The students are focused on what the principal is saying, and when we recognize their leader during the event, he or she receives the most enthusiastic applause.

Our founder, Father Tim Scully, likes to say that a strong leader is the "secret sauce" that makes a good school, and this is never more evident than at schools like the ACE Academies. The principals at these schools, along with the faculty, the staff, and even the students, have fostered a school culture—that "special something"—that each and every member of the school community has embraced. Each person knows how things are supposed to go at school, knows what's important (the Academies' model preaches "God in All Things"), and knows that living in and up to this culture will put them on the path to success. That buy-in of the school culture is what separates schools like the Academies, and that buy-in is necessary for the students at these schools to reach the goals of ACE Academies: college and heaven.

Notre Dame ACE Academies Bring Strengths and Goals Together

Monday, April 28, 2014

Written by: Eric Prister

Three Catholic schools in Tucson have embraced an innovative model for their students’ success—a local partnership with the University of Notre Dame and the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) that includes increased community and corporate support and seeks to meld the various aspects of school life into one culture.

The culture emphasizes two goals, college and heaven,
MC4 7490which are on the mind of every student, every teacher, and every administrator. These three schools, the Notre Dame ACE Academies, are in the spotlight as Notre Dame’s National Bus Tour visits Tucson April 27-30. Leaders of ACE who have come to celebrate the schools’ approach are mindful that their mission to sustain, strengthen, and transform Catholic schools does indeed entail melding a number of factors together.

Schools need strong teachers to motivate and cultivate the young minds they instruct. They need strong leaders to take the reins and elevate schools to their fullest potential. No matter how strong the school, it means nothing if students don't have access to the school. Thus, ACE places high priority on improving opportunities for all students, regardless of background, to benefit from the gift of Catholic schools.

Through initiatives such as the Program for Educational Access and the Catholic School Advantage campaign, ACE strives to open the doors of Catholic schools to as many children as possible.

Moreover, ACE is in its 20th year of building its multifaceted approach to serve Catholic schools by recognizing the importance of school culture.  Every aspect of a school—the way its teachers teach, the way its students learn, and the expectations of both—is wrapped up in the culture that ultimately makes a school great.

As the ACE bus tour arrives in Tucson, we reflect on the how the Notre Dame ACE Academies and their distinctive culture unite and build upon various aspects of ACE’s 20 years of service—its commitment to providing a quality education as well as making that education more accessible to all children. Each year, ACE sends nearly 200 teachers to Catholic schools around the country—talented, faith-filled young people, ready to make a difference in their students’ lives. ACE also fosters the growth of future school leaders with the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program.

The Notre Dame ACE Academies in Tucson—St. John the Evangelist School and Santa Cruz School—are the original sites for this unique university-school partnership model. (Two schools in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area have adopted the model, as well.) Thanks to the combination of strengths and commitments found in the culture of these Tucson schools, including exceptional leadership and support from the community, nearly 750 children are experiencing a transformational education and are closing the academic achievement gap. 

Sweet Home, Chicago

Thursday, April 03, 2014 by The University of Notre Dame and the ACE program share special ties with the city of Chicago, fostering a relationship in support of Catholic schools.

Chicago Bus2-Feature

Written by: Eric Prister

Students around Notre Dame's campus joke about how often "Chicago" is the response to the question "where are you from?" It seems like more than half of the students are from the Windy City, or more likely, from one of the nearby suburbs. In fact, many on campus joke that South Bend might as well consider itself a suburb of Chicago, since a ninety-minute drive is comparable to the time it takes some of those who live in actual suburbs to reach downtown.

All jokes aside, Notre Dame does share a special connection to Chicago and has made a special effort to foster that connection. With a alumni base larger than any other in the United States (more than 20,000 former Notre Dame students live in and around the Windy City), Chicago has affectionately been called "Notre Dame West."

In addition to the alumni population, Notre Dame has also started basing some of its programs in Chicago, further strengthening the ties between Our Lady's University and its closest major metropolis. The Notre Dame Law School sends some of its current students from an externship in Chicago, and the Executive MBA program from the Mendoza School of Business is based in Chicago. Through these initiatives and more, Notre Dame has shown a commitment to making a difference in the city that so many of its graduates call home.

The Alliance for Catholic Education also has important ties to the Windy City and its Catholic school community. In 2001, when ACE's co-founder Father Sean McGraw was teaching at Notre Dame High School in the Chicago area, he and the five former ACE teachers on the faculty began meeting once a month for mass, dinner, and fellowship in support of Catholic schools. This set the stage for ACE Fellowship (which later became ACE Advocates) and became the model for our regional groups of Catholic education supporters.

Since that point, Chicago's Advocates group has become the largest in the nation, with over 300 members and over 150 former ACE graduates living (and many teaching) in the Chicago area. Chicago is also home to a strong Catholic School Advantage campaign, and the Archdiocese of Chicago is the newest home to an ACE Teaching Fellows community. Jen Kowieski, a member of ACE 4 and teacher at St. Josaphat in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, was the founding director of LU-CHOICE, Loyola University's teacher formation program. Even Loyola Academy, the former school of ACE's co-founder Father Tim Scully, is now run by Katie Ball, a member of ACE's first teaching cohort.

Catholic schools themselves are thriving in Chicago as well. It is the only major city in the United States to show an increase in Catholic school enrollment with 480 more students in 2013 than in 2012. Chicago also holds a 98% high school graduation rate in Catholic schools, and the school communities around the city are dedicated to providing a quality education for all of Chicago's youth.

More than these tangible connections, Chicago and the University of Notre Dame share a culture, community, and passion for Catholic schools. Chicago's Catholic schools graduate more students and send them to college. They also save Chicago more than a billion dollars per year by providing education to children at no cost to the city. But more than that, ACE believes that Catholic schools are good for America; we believe that Cathoilc schools form faith-filled, civically-minded, intelligent adults ready to change the world, and what better place to form them than the city with which we share so much. The Chicago community and the Notre Dame community are intimately related, and the university and ACE are committed to fostering a community of difference makers in our own sweet home, Chicago.

Mr. Minnesota Nice

Wednesday, April 02, 2014 by Alec Torigian by How one Catholic school teacher in Minnesota has made all the difference for his students


Written by: Alec Torigian

The application process to become an ACE teacher is both involved and competitive. It is also very personal. In fact, the first essay prompt asks why you feel called to ACE, and a later prompt asks you to describe an influential teacher from your past. For me, the two answers had a great deal of overlap. I can't think about my desire to serve Catholic schools without thinking about the inspiration I derived from the example set by Mr. J.

Dave "Mr. J" Johnson has been the PE teacher at St. Raphael's in Crystal, MN (near Minneapolis) since 1977. He is also the Athletic Director, Health and Science teacher, and coach for several high school basketball teams in the Twin Cities. The longevity and variety of his dedication to Catholic schools in the Twin Cities, however, are not the only things that makes him special.

"Minnesota nice" is a phrase often used to describe "politely friendly" folks from my beloved state just south of Canada who "have a disinclination to make a fuss or stand out" (thank you, Wikipedia). Within minutes of meeting Mr. J, you would agree that he is a great example of such a kind and understated person, and you would likely join the hundreds (thousands?) who have sung his praises.

Yes, Mr. J is a Minnesotan, and yes, he certainly is the epitome of the adjective "nice." It's also safe to say he's humble, not wanting to stand out. But here's the thing - he does stand out. While his incredibly gentle demeanor may not seem to match his giant physical stature, his heart is as big as they come.

If you ask any of Mr. J's former students or players, they would sing the same praise. Mr. J puts his heart and soul into the school community that he feels blessed to serve, and, as I wrote in that ACE admissions essay, he reminds us all of Jesus' love by the way that he deeply loves and respects everyone he meets.

In his time as a Catholic school educator and coach, Mr. J has inspired people who have gone on to do everything from winning an NBA championship to teaching middle school to sending their own children to St. Raphael's to learn from him. He is keenly aware of every child's need to be loved and to be exposed to respectful role models - so he gives them exactly that.

The perfect example of Mr. J's unique form of "nice" can be summed up in a recent experience. When he learned that about half the students at St. Raphael School sought significant financial assistance in order to continue their Catholic education, he knew had to act. A few short months thereafter, and with the help of the administration, he helped the school raise $30,000 in what has become known as the Mr. J Scholarship Fund. To top it off, an anonymous donor heard of the effort and has matched the $30,000. The fund will be a game-changer for many of these school families who struggle to make ends meet.

If you are lucky enough to stop by my favorite state and make your way over to St. Raphael's, you may find Mr. J mowing the baseball fields, running the parish softball tournament, talking to prospective families, or heading to Mass. The one thing that will stand out long after you leave there, however, is that Catholic schools continue to make the impossible happen because of people like Mr. J – people that we should try to emulate - and that's even greater than Minnesota nice.

Embracing the Challenge: Texas Shows a Zeal for Education

Friday, March 28, 2014 by Catholic Schools throughout Texas are breaking the Latino achievement gap through passion for learning and zeal for education.


Written by: Eric Prister

Father TJ Martinez, president at Cristo Rey Jesuit and recipient of one of Houston's Sorin Awards for Service to Catholic Schools, spoke to his students about doing the impossible.

"At Cristo Rey Jesuit, we do the difficult immediately, and the impossible we do soon after."

Fr. Martinez, along with schools and communities around Texas, are doing the impossible and rewriting the narrative of Catholic schools through their zeal and passion for children's education.

Throughout Texas, from Austin to San Antonio, from Corpus Christi to the Valley, teachers, students, parents, and administrators showed us just what it means to be zealous for Catholic schools.

The schools in Texas serve heavily Latino populations, and for some this might be seen as a challenge—the achievement gap among Latino students is striking. Only 53% of Latino children graduate from high school in four years. Only 25% of Latinos aged eighteen to twenty-four enroll in college, and only 16% of Latino eighteen-year-olds are considered "college ready."

This is perhaps a challenge for the schools in Texas, but it is a challenge that both the schools and their communities have embraced with characteristic zeal. The teachers are passionate about their subjects, and the students are passionate about learning. The schools in Texas, the teachers and administrators along with the students and their parents, are bridging the achievement gap.

Latinos who attend Catholic schools are 42% more likely to graduate from high school and two and a half times more likely to graduate from college. In just one example, at Guadalupe Regional Middle School in Brownsville, 90% of graduates go on to finish high school and either attend college or serve in the armed forces. GRMS is one of many schools that embrace the challenges and overcome them through passion for learning and zeal for education.

At ACE, we proudly wear t-shirts and stickers that say "I Heart Catholic Schools.” The schools in Texas truly live that message. Day after day, they turn their love for Catholic schools and for each other into success stories through a zeal that most fully characterizes the mission of Catholic education.

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