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 (NDAA) 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: NDAA 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.