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On the Road for Catholic Schools

In Southern Texas, Catholic Schools Provide a Foundation for Immigrant Families

Monday, March 24, 2014

Written by: Andrea Cisneros

On a map, a border is a hard line. That makes sense - it’s supposed to be a mark upon the Earth. Stick your feet in one place, and you’re in one nation. Stand to the right, and you stand in another country.

But in real life, the map’s hard line becomes a gradient. At least that’s so in the Rio Grande Valley, a region of Texas stretching from its southernmost tip up the north bank of the Rio Grande for about one hundred miles, and in Brownsville, the Valley’s largest city.

Here, Spanish is about as common as English - it’s hard to say for sure because the Valley’s other prominent dialect, Spanglish, makes a fuzzy linguistic venn diagram. I often heard my students use sentences like: “Oye, pregunta a tu mamá if you can come over to my house.” Signs saying, “Aceptamos pesos”  - We take pesos - are not uncommon, especially downtown. There’s lot of Mexican food but not much Tex-Mex (yes, though both delicious, those are different things).

brownsvilleFor many Brownsville families, the border is a delay, a line to wait in when they make their weekly pilgrimages to visit their tíos and abuelitas on the other side. A good number of the students at St. Joseph Academy, the Catholic high school in Brownsville, cross for school every day. If the blending of cultures wasn’t interesting enough, complex economic issues shape life in the Valley, where the gap between the poor and the well-off is particularly wide.

Into this mix come Catholic schools. In the Valley, Catholic schools are places where students learn to navigate the gradient. They learn about the wider world without ever having their own heritage denigrated. English class is just as important here as it is anywhere else - not more, and not at the expense of the students’ home language (whether it’s Spanish or Spanglish). For kids from one side of the socioeconomic spectrum, Catholic schools are a way to get at opportunities they might miss otherwise, and for all students, they’re a place to learn about and develop their common values and beliefs.

Catholic schools are critical in the Valley because they both are and aren’t part of the gradient. They thoroughly reflect their community as a place of “both/and” and in-between; a place of both constant change and deep roots. At the same time, Catholic schools here represent that which is constant: family, service, faith, and hope. They are founded on, foster, and thrive on the interconnection between all persons and all peoples, regardless of their home language (or languages) or on which side of a line they stand.

Catholic schools – in the Valley and everywhere else – form their students into the fullest and Truest expression of who they are. From the mix of influences, options, challenges, and demands comes a young person defined by faith, principles, and their connection to their neighbor. They can navigate the gradient because they themselves are solid.   

The Peak of Excellence: Faith and Academics Collide in Colorado

Wednesday, March 19, 2014 by Schools in Colorado strike perfect balance between a strong faith-life and solid academic performance. In fact, the two are intimately intertwined.


Written by: Eric Prister

“We are a community of love. We are a community of joy. We are a community of hope. We are a community of faith.”

As the video introducing St. Rose of Lima school in Denver, Colorado wound to a close, these words reinforced what we had already learned to be true—the students of St. Rose of Lima, along with all the students of the Archdiocese of Denver, and all the Catholic school students in Colorado strive to be excellent in both academics, but also in their spirituality.

Catholic schools often have a hard balance to strike—many around the country serve predominantly non-Catholic populations, though they are still rooted in strong Catholic communities. The Catholic culture needs to be both all-encompassing and exceedingly inclusive, welcoming those who are not Catholic while also staying true to the most basic tenants of the school. The Catholic schools in Colorado, especially St. Rose of Lima and Corpus Christi in Colorado Springs, have embraced that challenge and their strong faith shines through.

As our visit to St. Rose began, the student council described the beliefs of the school community.

“We believe that excellence is a blessing rooted in the person of Jesus Christ, found in the community around us. St. Rose strives to be a community of excellence. We strive for unity as brothers and sisters in Christ, perseverance as followers of Christ, and joy as members of a community of faith.”

At St. Rose of Lima, academics and spirituality are not simply two goals that are equally important. They are two goals that are so intimately intertwined that they can, and in fact must, be sought together.

At Corpus Christi, too, the faith-filled nature of the Colorado Catholic schools shone through. Throughout the hallways, posters displayed “true heroes,” biblical figures that students are encouraged to emulate. Even at a young age, students are taught that strong academics is rooted in strong spirituality. One of the four rules for the pre-K classes at Corpus Christi, rules with accompanying hand motions that the children can recite on command, reads “be a friend like Jesus.” Faith-life is the corner on which the rest of the school stands.

A few days later, Fr. Joe Corpora told us all a story about the best definition of Catholic schools he’s ever heard:

A priest was once asked how one could tell if a Catholic school was successful. They asked him, “is it based on how many of the children that attend the school go on to become priests and religious?”

“No,” he said. “That’s not it.”

“Is it based on how many of the students that attend the school go on to jobs of service, serving the people around them?”

“No,” he said. “It’s not that either. The way you can tell the success of a Catholic schools is if each person who attends the school, at the end of a long life, believes in a God that loves him or her, and believes in Him because of the things they experienced as a child.”

Our visit to the schools in the archdiocese of Denver and the diocese of Colorado Springs, and especially St. Rose of Lima and Corpus Christi, showed just how successful they are.

Catholic Schools Come Together in Oklahoma

Friday, March 14, 2014


Written by: Eric Prister

"Here at Mount Saint Mary's, we aren't just students at a school. We're people in a community."

Throughout the bus tour, from east to west, from north to south, we've seen strong communities that rally around their schools and their children, but nowhere was that more evident than in Oklahoma when the bus made its stops in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

As the student body president at Mouth Saint Mary's High School said in her speech during the stop at Sacred Heart School, the Tulsa and Oklahoma City communities have rallied around their Catholic schools, despite the sometimes difficult challenges that face faith-based schools.

Tulsa and Oklahoma City prove that community in Catholic schools is more than just the community of the family. It is more than just the community in one classroom, or the community of one particular school. The success of Catholic schools depends on the community at large, in the city, the diocese, and in the Church as a whole—a success that was put on display in Oklahoma.

At our event at Sts. Peter and Paul School in Tulsa, students from more than ten Catholic schools from the diocese were in attendance, including students from St. John the Evangelist school more than an hour away. Students from all across the diocese participated in the event, singing, speaking, and praying together with their fellow Tulsa peers. They came together as one, offering the ACE team a look at the great things being done across the city, not just at one school.

In Oklahoma City at Sacred Heart, students of all ages addressed the congregation during mass, emphasizing over and over again that the strength of Catholic schools, and the strength of the Oklahoma City community in general, is that all are made to feel welcome and included.

As has been said before, today's educational climate can be a difficult one for Catholic schools. By itself, a school can experience difficulties when it tries to fend for itself, alone and independent. Apart of a community, however, schools can thrive together, pushing each other toward success, both academically and spiritually.

In Oklahoma City and Tulsa, the Catholic school communities as a whole are embracing this mission, striving together every day to provide a quality education for all of their children. The schools there, like many others across the country, are a beautiful witness to the power and joy that come from a strong Catholic school community.

America's Heart: It's the People

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Written by: Libby Brands, ACE 13

When it was announced that I would be an ACE teacher in Tulsa, OK, I had to grab a map.  My ignorance about Tulsa was not solely reserved to geography; apparently competing about who recycles and rides their bike more is not a common conversation here as it is where I was raised in the Northwest.  Yet today, and much to my father's dismay, I still find myself in the place I swore I would leave on that first week in August of 2006 when I walked from my ACE apartment with broken air conditioning to the grocery store two miles away in the 110 degree heat.

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On the drive between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, there is a sign with a picture of Oklahoma that reads "America's Corner."  I have never understood how this moniker makes sense.  The analogy seems less than flattering, especially considering the reckless generosity displayed by members of the Tulsa community.  The Catholic community in Tulsa has proven that they deserve a nickname that is much more fitting: if people knew our story, they would replace the sign with one that reads "America's Heart."

The support of benefactors in the city is humbling.  Donors and foundations contribute over $800,000 in financial aid each year for students to attend Catholic schools.  Local groups have been formed whose sole purpose is to ensure that the operational costs of the most under-resourced schools are met, and they have acted to ensure that no Catholic school will close as a result of financial need.  These same, zealous supporters of Catholic education in Tulsa successfully lobbied Notre Dame for the return of ACE teachers to the city after a several year hiatus.

For a state that is only 7% Catholic, the Catholic school population is disproportionately successful and decorated.  A third of the Catholic schools in Tulsa have achieved Blue Ribbon Awards from the U.S. Department of Education.  Catholic schools in Tulsa have won the State Academic Bowl tournament each of the last three years.  Our sports teams are well represented in State playoffs and Championships, and our students go on to the best Universities in the country.

There is only one reason to brave a place that marks its year with ice storms, heat waves, tornadoes, and wind: it is the people.  There is a profound sense of grit in this state, a sense that we will fight back, stand tall, and be proud.  Nowhere is this more evident than in Tulsa's Catholic schools.

austin2Are you the parent or relative of a current ACEr? Do you know of someone who is interested in applying to be an ACE teacher? Click here to learn more about ACE and where we serve.

Rewrite the Narrative

Saturday, March 08, 2014 by A Look Back at Leg 2 of the Tour

Written by: Eric Prister

Schools are closing, or at least, enrollment is down. Schools are too expensive, anyway, and so many people can't afford to attend them. The Catholic school is a dying breed—the model just doesn't work anymore.

So the narrative reads.Leg 2 blog

Twenty years ago, the Alliance for Catholic Education was founded in the midst of a narrative we've heard far too often - a supposed downward spiral of Catholic schools.

As the ACE bus team wraps up the second leg of our 50-city tour, we see signs of a narrative in the midst of heavy rewriting.

It is true, in some corners of the country, Catholic schools still face immense challenges. Many, however, are thriving, and communities are rallying around them. Just ask the teachers, families and students we visited in Jacksonville about financial difficulty and the prospect of having to fight to keep their school doors open. Over the past decade, the Guardian Schools have raised more than $9.5 million to keep Holy Rosary and St. Pius V running and thriving.

Many parents can't afford Catholic schools for their children, right? Ask Our Lady of Prompt Succor in Westwego, Louisiana, and they'll tell you differently. Rather than succumbing to the struggle to fill seats in their classrooms, its bursting at the seams thanks in large part to the state-wide voucher programs available in Louisiana.

St. John the Evangelist in Hapeville, Georgia is also thriving, and without the benefit of parental choice options. That school provides one of the best educations available to the children of that area, and it does so with a Catholic spirit and joyous energy that you can feel when you walk through their halls.

Nearly closed just five years ago, enrollment at Sacred Heart in Lake Worth, Florida is climbing quickly; 90 new students have joined with scholarships from Step Up for Students, 54 students with McKay scholarships, and 20 pre-K students benefiting from the VPK program. The elementary school doesn't just excel academically (their Odyssey of the Mind team has won regionals six years in a row)—they support a thriving brass band, drum line, a capella group, and jazz band.

Of course, we can't forget to mention our own Notre Dame ACE Academies that we recently visited in Tampa. Students at St. Joseph School have improved their reading scores by four grade levels in less than a year. With such progress, it is no wonder that their enrollment gains are just as impressive.

We're not going to hide from the challenges that still face Catholic schools in this country, but we're not going to dwell on them either. The narrative we see playing out throughout this tour is too filled with hope. Catholic schools are showing amazing signs of life and vibrancy; they are thriving and beating the odds.

ACE set out twenty years ago with a belief that the popular version of the story of Catholic schools wasn't written in stone - we believed then, and believe now, that the narrative has a different ending. Our February trip through the South has shown us we're not the only ones who carry that belief. The schools, their faculties and staffs, and the communities that support them are the ones crafting the new story. This bus tour plays witness to a great revival. Let's continue to rewrite the narrative.

Love Thy Neighbor in Atlanta

Monday, March 03, 2014 by Susanne Greenwood, principal of St. Peter Claver School near Atlanta, shares her experiences with, and her belief in the mission of, the ACE program.

Love Thy Neighbor in Atlanta

Written by: Susanne Greenwood

Last week, the community of St. Peter Claver Regional Catholic School in Decatur, Georgia enjoyed a surprise visit — one that thrilled and delighted every one of our students — when the University of Notre Dame’s ACE Bus, on its 20th Anniversary Tour, pulled into our school parking lot. The surprise visit was complemented by a day of welcomed warmth and sunshine as each class took turns to file outside to have a look at the gleaming RV and find the name of our beloved school along its side. The ACE team with the bus was also joy-filled and fun — they gifted a pair of very cool sun glasses to every student.

As a first-year principal at St. Peter Claver, I first learned of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education years ago when my own children, who were then attending a local Catholic elementary school, were blessed with not one but two ACE teachers. Last April, when I first met Nicholas Brandt, our middle school’s ACE Language Arts teacher, his dedication and high expectations for his students were palpable, qualities that all principals hope for, expect and pray for in their teachers. When the school year began, the attributes I saw and felt in Nicholas Brandt were confirmed as I observed him in and out of the classroom as he taught literature, reading, and language arts and held the Philology Club and St. Peter Claver Drama Club as extracurricular after school activities. He continues to enrich the lives and learning of our middle school students in countless ways.

Nicholas and I had already made plans to travel with our eighth grade students the next morning to St. John the Evangelist where the bus would be for a school-wide Mass — a celebration of diversity, but also a celebration of ACE’s 20th anniversary and the 12 years that St. John the Evangelist School has been blessed with wonderful and dedicated ACE teachers. We felt doubly blessed to have the presence and graciousness of so many in the ACE community, and were equally proud to sit alongside the students of St. John the Evangelist and St. Peter Claver as we celebrated Mass led by Father Michael Onyekuru.

The call to worship began with students performing a Vietnamese Lan Dance and New Year Dance followed by the Nigerian Call to Worship, all thoughtful and rhythmic dance interpretations around the sacredness of worship and prayer. Deacon Dick Tolcher shared a warm homily around the truth that we are “All God’s Children” and the Deacon’s love for the students and community of St. John the Evangelist was evident to all. After the Mass, Father Tim Scully, who years ago birthed his vision of ACE, welcomed the many guests in attendance at this anniversary celebration. Former ACE teachers who could not be present in person shared their good memories and good wishes via video to the joyful glees of former students. Trust me, this is music to a principal’s ears and heart and confirmation of the eternal touch of a good—no great—teacher.

All those involved with ACE have a “forever place” in my heart, and I remain one grateful principal for the influence and touch of its teachers on all our children who learn in our wonderful Catholic schools across our great country. I have no doubt that the one ingredient that undergirds and overlays all the education, preparation, energy, time, and dedication of these good teachers and staff at ACE is what our Lord asks of all—to “Love thy neighbor”.

Bishop Lynch Reflects on the Visit to Tampa

Friday, February 28, 2014

Bishop Lynch Reflects on the Visit to Tampa

Written by Bishop Robert Lynch from the Diocese of St. Peterburg

Last week we welcomed the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) to Tampa and St. Petersburg. To celebrate ACE’s 20th anniversary, its leaders are traveling the country to visit Catholic schools in more than 50 cities, a tour to celebrate Catholic education and honor its many champions. ACE is the brainchild of Holy Cross Fathers Sean McGraw and Timothy Scully, who dreamed up a strategy to recruit talented students (many from the University of Notre Dame and St. Mary’s, but hailing from numerous other excellent colleges, too) to serve for two years in low-income Catholic schools around the nation. With the support of Americorps, ACE accepts ninety new teachers each year. They undergo intensive formation during two full summers at Notre Dame, including classroom work and hands-on teaching experiences. During the school year, they fan out around the country to teach in Catholic schools. As part of their participation in ACE, they earn a M.Ed. degree from Notre Dame.

The Diocese of St. Petersburg currently has eight ACE teachers working at St. Petersburg Catholic, Sacred Heart in Pinellas Park, Holy Family in St. Petersburg, St. Joseph's in West Tampa, Incarnation in Tampa, and at Tampa Catholic High School.

Fathers Scully and McGraw fashioned another “dream” of a slightly longer program to prepare transformational leaders to serve as principals and school leaders for Catholic schools. ACE offers a Master's Degree in Educational Administration through the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, which has prepared more than 400 leaders to date. What I like best about this innovative approach is that it gives a local church like ours a "bench" which we did not previously have from which to cull the best candidates to administer our Catholic schools. Now St. Leo University has put in place a similar program and some of our better candidates are attending it as well. All because dreams do occasionally come true if the “dreamer” evinces patience, perseverance and prayer.

But Fathers Scully and McGraw thankfully did not stop their dreaming and with the generous assistance of the Walton Family Foundation, they began a third initiative, the Notre Dame ACE Academies.  At this moment this new university-school partnership exists only in the dioceses of Tucson and St. Petersburg. In our diocese, Sacred Heart in Pinellas Park and St. Joseph's in West Tampa are part of the transformational school network.  What’s all this about?

Well, the ACE team at the University of Notre Dame identifies schools that are on "life-support" financially and enrollment-wise, and where they believe there might be the opportunity to turn things around. The Notre Dame ACE Academy model takes advantage of public funding for parental choice. At the moment a tuition tax credit program is operating in Arizona, and in Florida the "Step-up for Students" program offers corporations the opportunity to contribute a portion of what they would owe the state for corporate income taxes to a separate organization that then provides tuition assistance to qualifying low-income parents. If the school looks ripe for "Step-up for Students" tuition scholarships, then, in partnership with the diocese, the management of the school is turned over to a board led by ACE which focuses on creating a strong school culture infused with Catholic identity and improving students’ academic achievement. As a matter of fact, the Notre Dame ACE Academies has this mantra: "Our goals: College and Heaven." In one year, both Sacred Heart and St. Joseph have been taken off "life-support. Each has seen significantly increased enrollment and test scores that reflect students’ strong academic progress.


Most Rev. Robert N. Lynch has served the Diocese of St. Petersburg as Bishop for the past 16 years. You can follow his blog at http://bishopsblog.dosp.org/

Pulled Back to Pensacola

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Pulled Back to Pensacola

Written by: Emily Gilloon

“Would you rather live forever with a bucket on one foot or five bottles on your fingers? Would you rather be a giant hamster or a tiny rhino? Would you rather be able to stop time or fly?”

These and many other peculiar scenarios hummed throughout Ryan Schwab’s fifth grade classroom as 16 pairs of our Little Flower and St. John’s students timidly (and awkwardly) participated in a get-to-know-you icebreaker. Like so many of the best ideas in teaching, Ryan and I had decided on a whim to bring our two classes together before the exciting ACE bus celebration took place at St. John’s in Pensacola. As both of us quietly observed our classes, I couldn’t help but feel undeniably joyful, blessed and grateful.

Just about two years before I learned Ryan would rather fly than be able to stop time, I accepted a post-ACE job at a company in my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. That June I packed up my life in Pensacola, took a 17-hour road trip back home to Iowa, and officially left behind a community of teachers, housemates and students whom I had come to love during two of the most professionally and spiritually fulfilling years of my life. I left Pensacola with a heavy heart, but I was excited about the prospect of starting a new job and spending more time with my family.

Six months later, my longing for my ACE friends, job and life hadn’t faded as I had hoped it would. I started to question my decision to leave Pensacola at all. I daydreamed about moving back to the Sunshine State and being near my ACE housemates and former coworkers. More importantly, I craved working in a place where I could pray freely, say the words “Merry Christmas” at work and attend Mass weekly as part of my job. The time I spent outside the classroom helped me to realize I craved the sense of purpose and joy that comes with teaching in a Catholic school. In February of last year, after months of prayers, doubts and indecisiveness, I emailed my former ACE principal and asked if it was too late to apply for the fifth grade position I knew would be open in the fall.

She wrote back that day and told me she received my email only a few mere hours before she was going request a new ACE teacher for the job I wanted. At that moment, I knew God had been right beside me the whole time, guiding my thoughts, the exact words I wrote to her and my final decision just to press “send” and see what happened.

A year after sending that email, I stood next to my 16 giggly students in the sunny St. John’s parking lot, waving my “Catholic Schools are Good for America” flag, and smiling to myself as Fr. Lou DelFra and the ACE bus rolled in. Would I rather be working a job with a bigger paycheck, fewer responsibilities and more free time on the weekends? Absolutely not. Instead I thank God every day for surrounding me with curious students, devoted teachers and friends and for allowing me to grow as a Catholic educator.


Lighting the Torch in Mobile

Thursday, February 13, 2014 by Alec Torigian

Lighting the Torch in Mobile

Written by: Alec Torigian

The Olympics just wouldn’t be the Olympics without the lighting of the torch. It doesn’t just signify the return of the games — it signifies a light passed from athlete to athlete, from country to country. For the ACE bus team, it was also a signal of our return to the road and a symbol of the light we try to bring to each community we visit. Of course, as we have all come to expect, we continue to find that we were the ones receiving the light, and no stop has made that more clear than our visit to Mobile, Ala.

The light of Christ and the torch of the passion of service have been passed on in Mobile for all 20 years of ACE. As we look back at these last 20 years, we see a great case study proving that Catholic schools change lives. That is, after all, why we sign up to teach in the first place. However, there’s something magical about seeing a former student proudly wear the uniform of McGill-Toolen Catholic High School and profess in a speech to the whole community that her Catholic school experience has, in fact, changed the entire trajectory of her life. To hear that she, as a freshman, can already recognize that her teachers and classmates have brought the light of Christ to her — well, that’s just icing on ACE’s 20th birthday cake.

But we say this bus tour isn’t about a celebration of our birthday, and that is completely true — we are celebrating light-giving communities like the one in Mobile. Archbishop Thomas Rodi also spoke of the light of Christ being shared within the beautiful community of Catholic schools. He is famous (in my eyes) for simply and accurately stating the purpose of our Catholic schools: to tell our students implicitly and explicitly that they are loved and that they can succeed. To see the McGill-Toolen Chamber Singers perform is to see a group of students from various backgrounds feeling (and being) loved and successful. Watching the faces of the entire community present for the celebration (we’re talking ACE Advocates, parents, folks from the Archdiocese in every office, Notre Dame friends and families and more) would show you that, by the very sharing of the gifts and opportunities they’ve been given, these students are passing the torch of the light of Christ right back to the very community built up to show them this light.

However, Mobile reminded us that it’s not just “the usual suspects” who bring light into the stadium. Our friends in the political sphere, like Representative Chad Fincher, are fighting to bring these incredible opportunities to share in Christ’s light through education to more and more students through the Alabama Accountability Act.  What an incredible gift it is to open the doors to this proverbial Olympic stadium for all of our children to experience its light.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention that we who are lucky enough to have been called teachers of these children receive the light of Christ from them much more than we are ever able to give it. It is our goal to share it with them, but words cannot describe the deep sense of Christ’s presence in seeing a student with life’s odds stacked against her in many ways shine as a strong student (by teaching herself Algebra in middle school,) a strong public speaker (after having at one point been reluctant to even speak in class,) and an example of living out Christ’s kindness her own teachers try to follow.

When students like this receive the torch, they use it to illumine the entire Olympic stadium, and that is what a community of sharers of Christ’s light is all about.

A City with Hope to Bring

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

A City with Hope to Bring

Written by: Eric Prister

New Orleans has always had a high level of appeal. It’s a city that knows how to celebrate. A standard Spring Break destination famous for Mardi Gras, the Superdome, jazz, and Bourbon Street, the lens through which Americans viewed this city shifted dramatically with Hurricane Katrina.

ACE came to New Orleans in 2007, with our ACE 14 cohort. Two years after the storm, the world still remembered the hurricane, but the spotlight had faded. As I headed down to my placement in this great city with ACE 15, I was thrilled. What more could you ask for? Great city. Great culture. Sunshine. I wasn’t sure the sort of state the city would be in. My only experience there had been as a volunteer during spring break cleaning up in the wake of the hurricane.

I had a lot to learn.

This is a town unlike any other. The diversity of food, music and culture isn’t paralleled in a place of this size. I once spent an hour with my students as they listed New Orleans desserts. Not foods, desserts! It was like the shrimp scene from Forrest Gump, only there were 18 Bubbas telling me about beignets and bananas foster. The year is filled with festivals that all offer distinct and delicious delights, ranging from po-boys to art to great music.

In spite of these celebrations, it is impossible to ignore the dark sides of this city.  Two of my students lost family members to gun violence. One witnessed it firsthand. A number of Catholic schools experienced massive turnover in the wake of Katrina, struggling to maintain enrollment and school identity in a whirlwind of changes. My school couldn’t adjust to these changes, and closed at the end of my first year.

New Orleans is a witness to colossal juxtaposition. Never have I been in a place in which polar opposites exist so simultaneously. There is a rich, deep culture drawn from a kaleidoscopic heritage; at the same time, it is a violent town with a history of corruption. It is known as much for jazz music as it is for crime. The neighborhoods of the city embody these worlds colliding; decadence and destitution are often literally next door to one another.

During my time in Louisiana, I struggled with this bipolar reality. How could beauty and darkness be such intimate neighbors? In two years, I got to see a lot: a Super Bowl victory for the Saints, a school closing, a gulf oil spill that hammered an area still in recovery.

In the face of challenges and disasters, natural or manmade, this city is anchored on hope. Hope and resilience. Through the good and the bad during my time, these two were always present in the people we met and in the situations, no matter how dire they seemed.

Tough circumstances can bring out the best and the worst in people. This is true of the city of New Orleans, but I saw much more of the former than the latter. I have never met happier people, never felt more welcomed into a foreign community. Although it comes across as cliché, there is a unique spirit to New Orleans. It is a place that has kept on celebrating through devastation and heartache, and will continue to do so.

Of all the foods typical to this place, the best metaphor for my experience would have to be gumbo. A blend of many different ingredients, some of which I love, and some of which I am not very fond of, cooked slowly together in a meal that takes time to prepare, time to digest, and should always be eaten in good company.

Nearly a decade after the storm, while there is still rebuilding to be done, substantial progress has been made. In our seventh year here, ACE teachers have been able to become a small part of the Catholic schools narrative. It is one that reflects the spirit of the city: struggle, hope, and celebration. With our visit for the bus tour, we get to join in this celebration.

With the bus tour, I am heading back to NOLA for the first time since I taught here. I can’t wait to see this fair city again. Imperfect, yes, but filled with unconquerable hope and resilience. There is plenty to celebrate in New Orleans.

Letters from Burkina Faso to Biloxi

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Letters from Burkina Faso to Biloxi

Written by: Eric Prister

ACE teachers come from all walks of life and many different corners of the world, bringing their unique experiences to their new communities and students and exposing them to the world of possibilities out there.

Mikey Berino, ACE 19, is a prime example of such a well-rounded ACEr. A San Francisco Bay Area native, Mikey spent six months working for a political campaign in California after graduating from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, then spent the next six months working for a program dedicated to death row inmates. In keeping with his passion for social justice, Mikey then signed up for the Peace Corps, dedicating the next two years of his life to educating girls in Burkina Faso, West Africa, in a village with neither electricity nor running water.

Mikey attributes his dedication to service to his Catholic education. “Whenever you go to Catholic university, there’s a huge emphasis on social justice and service for others. During my time at LMU, [the idea of the Peace Corps] really kept echoing and echoing, and I knew I wanted to do something international and service-oriented when I graduated, and I also wanted to use French, and the Peace Corps fit all those parameters. My friends and I always joked about me going to Africa after graduation, but in the back of my mind I just knew that was going to be true,” he said.

Once in the Peace Corps, Mikey worked with a program called Girls’ Education, and Empowerment, dedicated to reversing the trend of girls dropping out of schools at a much higher rate than boys.

Mikey explained that the government of Burkina Faso asked the government of the U.S. to send volunteers to help with decreasing numbers of girls in schools, following up on students in kindergarten all the way through high school. The numbers of boys to girls is normally pretty even in kindergarten (a village class typically consists of about 40-45 students,) but as you move up further and further in their education career, you notice that girls end up dropping out significantly, especially during their middle and high school years, many times because of traditional gender roles or because families cannot afford to have their girls go to school. By the time that they get to their senior year, most of the boys in a single class graduate alongside only two or three girls.

While working at these schools, Mikey and his students became involved with the Peace Corps’ Coverdell World Wise Schools Correspondence Match pen pal program, where they match an interested volunteer with a school in the U.S. Mikey contacted his high school French teacher, and the two became partners in this exchange.

“Burkina Faso is one of the most undeveloped countries in the world, so there’s a postal system, but it’s not super efficient, and it’s in the middle of West Africa, so it takes a long time to get thing, so a pen pal program like that was a lot harder than I anticipated, especially since I didn’t live in a village with electricity or running water. It took a lot of effort, but it was definitely worth it,” said Mikey.

During his time in Burkina Faso, Mikey worked in schools as well as in the community working in after school programs for girls as well as parents to discuss the importance of education and ways to stay in school. Even though working with girls was his main objective, Mikey did a lot of work in the community as kind of a community resource.

“I think the dedication to community is part of the reason I was so attracted to the ACE program. In many ways it’s structured similarly to the Peace Corps, but with aspecific focus on Catholic schools,” said Mikey.

Mikey first heard about the ACE Teaching Fellows program when he came home to visit family and friends halfway through his time in Burkina Faso.

“My 8th grade teacher [at St. Joachim School in Hayward, Calif.,] Ms. Dana Bayer, and I had always sort of stayed in touch,” said Mikey, “and she found out I was going back home in the middle of my service just to visit and reconnect with friends and family. She contacted me and asked if I would come by and talk to her students about the Peace Corps and Burkina Faso and West Africa, and all of these things. After giving this presentation, I realized that I really loved to be in the classroom.

“Ms. Beyer was actually a graduate of the Remick Leadership Program at Notre Dame--I had no idea. So we were talking, and I told her I really felt called to teach, and she said I should consider applying to ACE.”

When his time in Burkina Faso was over, Mikey went back to St. Joachim School as a teaching assistant to see if teaching was really for him. After that year, Mikey knew he was called to be an ACE teacher.

After arriving in Biloxi as part of ACE 19, Mikey knew he wanted his students at St. Patrick Catholic High School to gain an understanding of the greater world. He incorporated his experiences in Burkina Faso and the Peace Corps into one of the units in his French II class, and presented the idea to his students of participating in the pen pal program he had been involved with before.

“I wanted to test the waters first and see if students were actually interested and it wasn’t just something that I wanted to do, that it was something they wanted to do as well.

“They had never been exposed to something like this. You hear about these kinds of programs, though, so they were really excited. But they were a little skeptical, too. So we set this up, but it took like a month and a half to receive a response. In many ways, when they sent the letters, they forgot.

“Finally they got their letters in the mail, and they were super excited. Their reaction was definitely one of the top 10 teaching moments of my ACE career. The best part was their wanting to write back in French without any hesitation. The most outgoing person to the shyest person in the class--they all wanted to write back in French. They wanted to do that on their own as opposed to me telling them they were going to--they asked to.”

The transformation in his students was incredible, said Mikey. Most students at St. Patrick take the minimum requirement of two years of a foreign language, though the programs are offered for three.

“This year, many of my students stayed and continued to French III, which says a lot about them. And I think the pen pal program helped in that it motivated them to use the language in new ways. Even though I sparked the fire in terms of contacting another volunteer, they are really the ones who keep fueling it. It’s awesome to see that in action. I honestly can’t speak any more highly of my students; I’m just so proud of them,” said Mikey.

A Safe Haven: Big Shoulders Fund

Friday, January 10, 2014 by The third in a multi-part series called "20 Catholic School Stories You Should Know"

A Safe Haven: Big Shoulders Fund

Written by: Eric Prister

“Once you’re safe, you can do anything.”

In Chicago in 1986, many children were anything but safe. Crime rates were high, poverty rates were high, and Chicago was known for having some of the worst public schools in the country.

Then archbishop of the archdiocese of America’s third-largest city, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin saw this problem, but was unsure how to fix solve it. Demand for Catholic schools in Chicago was great, but parishes didn’t have the money to keep the schools running, and families didn’t have the money to send their kids there anyway.

Bernardin approached business leaders around Chicago for their support, and they rose to the occasion. They wanted to create an organization that supported Catholic schools in the Chicago area, but didn’t want it connected to the diocese—thus, the Big Shoulders Fund was born.

Big Shoulders’ original goal was to raise $1 million so that underprivileged Chicago children could attend Catholic schools. Today, twenty-six years after the program was founded, Big Shoulders has raised more than $250 million.

Big Shoulders works with ninety-three schools and 24,000 students in the Chicago area. They still provide scholarships, as the organization originally sought to do, but they also saw a need for improvement of education in other areas.

“It’s great to have kids in these schools,” Carolyn Gibbs Broughton, ACE graduate and Director of Academic Programs and Student Enrichment at Big Shoulders, said. “But we have to make sure they’re quality schools.

Broughton said that Big Shoulders now focuses on four areas of improvement: scholarships, operations, academic enhancement, and leadership development.

Big Shoulders’ operations efforts come in the form of a patrons program, which matches local business leaders with a school. The patron donates money to the school each year for operational needs—maintenance for the school building, for example— and academic enhancement in the form of music teachers, art supplies, etc. The patron takes an integral role in the school, not only with their contribution, but in the decision-making process on what to do with the funds.

Big Shoulders has also started seeking out potential school leaders and helping them earn their Masters degree. Big Shoulders will pay one-third of the tuition for a participant to earn his or her degree in educational administration as long as the participant agrees to give three years serving as a leader in a Big Shoulders school.

More than the training and the funding, Big Shoulders sought to, and succeeds in addressing the problem of safety in Chicago. A study done by law professors at the University of Notre Dame found a correlation between Catholic schools closing in a neighborhood and an increase in crime rate. Gibbs said that there is a need for Catholic schools in Chicago, a need for safe places for students to come and learn.

“These schools are safe havens. Everyone should have access to a safe and quality school,” she said. “There is a demand for Catholic schools in Chicago—we just need to find innovative ways to give them that chance.”

Throughout twenty-six years serving the people of Chicago, Big Shoulders has constantly sought and utilized innovative ways of helping students receive a quality education, and has provided them with a safe place to succeed.


 Read more from 20 Catholic School Stories You Should Know

The St. Anthony's Miracle

Friday, December 13, 2013 by The second in a multi-part series called "20 Catholic School Stories You Should Know"

The St. Anthony's Miracle

Written by: Eric Prister

Amazing people all over the country are changing the lives of students in Catholic schools every day. Teachers, administrators, parents, and supporters of Catholic schools work tirelessly to provide every child a quality education. While it’s not possible to tell every story, and give every person the recognition he or she deserves, the 20 Catholic School Stories You Should Know series will help tell some of the best, most heartwarming, most life-changing stories about simple people doing extraordinary things for the cause of Catholic education.


At the end of the 90s, Milwaukee Catholic schools were struggling. Attendance was down, and schools were on the verge of closing. One of the schools, St. Anthony’s on the south side of Milwaukee, had an enrollment of fewer than 300 students and was in dire straights.

In an attempt to save the school, St. Anthony’s joined the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program—a program developed after the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing low-income families to use public funds at religious institutions—and began accepting students as part of the voucher program.Milwaukee 2

Enrollment at St. Anthony’s shot through the roof. Terry Brown, who started as a volunteer at the school, was named President in 2004 as the school enrollment continued to rise—two hundred voucher students in 1998; three hundred and fifty students in 2002; eight hundred in 2005. The school installed trailers on site to create enough space for the students, and then began buying property in the neighborhood for more buildings. (“Changes at St. Anthony’s makes it a school to watch,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinal).

Today, the school’s enrollment exceeds 1,600 students and serves students from three years old to high school. The largest Catholic school in the United States, St. Anthony’s houses students in five buildings in the Mitchell Street neighborhood in Milwaukee, led by President Zeus Rodriguez and principals Ramon Cruz and Julia D’Amato.

St. Anthony’s increased enrollment is remarkable in itself—increasing the enrollment fivefold when Catholic schools in the area were becoming endangered, if not on the verge of extinction—but becoming a quality school is an equally colossal task.

St. Anthony’s model is “One Team. One Family,” and this model has helped St. Anthony’s reach the level at which it stands today. The school returned to traditional teaching practices and emphasizes discipline, subscribing to the idea that if students remain focused, they can achieve academic excellence. Teachers at St. Anthony’s can command silence from their students, even in the large groups that are the norm at a school of more than 1,600 students, in nearly an instant, a sign of the discipline St. Anthony’s fosters.

The St. Anthony’s “team” and “family” isn’t only comprised of students and faculty—parents and community members are just as integral to the creation of a high quality Catholic school. The rise in enrollment was joined by a rise in Catholic families in the neighborhood; whole families entered the church as their children started attending St. Anthony’s school. The school made a conscious effort to engage the parents of its new students so that they could be intimately involved in the education, providing translators for non-English speaking parents for conferences and on-site translators to make communication as easy as possible.

Miracles do happen, and St. Anthony’s is the perfect example of one of those miracles. St. Anthony’s success could not have been achieved without the help of the voucher programs in Wisconsin, but that success was solidified by a plan to make sure that those students received the best possible educational opportunities

St. Anthony’s mission statement claims to “prepare scholars for college and beyond through highly structured and rigorous academic programs as well as the continued formation of the Faith, igniting strong, successful, Catholic leaders.” Each and every day that they continue to strive toward that mission increases the greatness of the St. Anthony’s miracle.

The Mother of Catholic Education

Friday, December 06, 2013

Written by: Caroline Lang

Amazing people all over the country are changing the lives of students in Catholic schools every day. Teachers, administrators, parents, and supporters of Catholic schools work tirelessly to provide every child a quality education. While it’s not possible to tell every story, and give every person the recognition he or she deserves, the 20 Catholic School Stories You Should Know series will help tell some of the best, most heartwarming, most life-changing stories about simple people doing extraordinary things for the cause of Catholic education.

What better way to kick of the 20 Catholic School Stories You Should Know series than by telling the story of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the founder of Catholic schools in America. Her story is truly the first Catholic school story, and the one without which none of the others would be possible.


"The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” Mt 13:31-32

Every great and mighty tree, like every great endeavor, begins as a single seed, requiring care and nurturing to reach its full potential.Mother Seton House

Before 1634, the fields in which to plant the seeds of faith in the New World were largely fenced off to Catholics, and anti-Catholicism was official government policy in the English colonies. It wasn’t until Lord Baltimore founded Maryland as the first “non-denominational” colony that the seeds of Catholicism were able to take root in America.

Even after Lord Baltimore established a tolerant state, the Catholic seedlings weathered terrible treatment, constantly trampled by persecution and choked by legal restraint. This oppression lasted for more than a hundred years, until it was largely mollified by the French involvement in the American Revolution, and a respect for their culture and Catholic identity developed.

This new respect largely cleared the skies for Catholicism and turned over a new leaf for its potential to grow, given the proper attention and caretakers.

Elizabeth Ann Seton became one such caretaker, sowing new seeds and meticulously cultivating the great tree of American Catholicism.

A convert to Catholicism, Elizabeth was confirmed into the faith by the Right Reverend John Carroll, the first and only Catholic bishop in America at that time. Elizabeth then founded an academy for young women, but enrollment numbers dwindled as news of her conversion to Catholicism spread, as anti-Catholicism was still prevalent.

During this troubling time, Elizabeth sought the spiritual counsel of a visiting priest, the Abbé Louis Dubourg, a French émigré of the Society of Saint-Sulpice. The Sulpicians were in the process of establishing the first Catholic seminary in the United States, and Dubourg invited Elizabeth to join them in their mission in Emmitsburg, Md.

A year later in 1810, Elizabeth established the St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School dedicated to the education of young Catholic women and made possible by the financial support of Samuel Sutherland Cooper, a wealthy convert and seminarian at the newly established, nearby Mount Saint Mary's University.

Around this time, Elizabeth also founded the first congregation of religious sisters in the United States, the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, which was dedicated to the care of the children of the poor.

Mother Seton, as she was henceforth known, dedicated the rest of her life to nurturing Catholic education in America, knowing that instilling the seeds of faith in the nation’s youth was the best way to cultivate the Church in America.

Pope Paul VI officially canonized Mother Seton on Sept. 14, 1975, making her the first native-born American saint.

The branches of Elizabeth Ann Seton’s legacy continue to grow and extend their reach over American Catholicism today. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton is honored as the patron saint of Catholic schools for the tremendous impact she had in the nascence of American Catholic education. Not only does Mother Seton School still exist in Emmitsburg as a direct descendant of St. Joseph’s Academy and Free School, but six separate religious congregations also trace their roots back to her Sisters of Charity.

Directly or indirectly, Catholic schools from Los Angeles to New York, Seattle to Miami owe their success largely to Mother Seton, who tended so tirelessly to the seeds of Catholicism—and the even smaller mustard seed of Catholic education. Her efforts allowed them to take root and grow into the beautiful, fruitful trees of faith we continue to cultivate today in our nation’s Catholic schools.

Giving Thanks

Thursday, November 28, 2013 by Reflections from the first leg of the "Fighting for Our Children's Future National Bus Tour"

Written by: Eric Prister

On a day when we take a step back and give thanks, and after visiting fourteen cities, seventeen schools, and thousands of children over the past seven weeks, it’s hard to be anything but grateful.

We set out on our journey, the “Fighting for Our Children’s Future National Bus Tour,” with hope, anticipation, and not a little bit of anxiety. We returned with that same hope, but now with joy and gratitude for those we met and all the great work they’re doing for Catholic schools.ND111913-1019

Everywhere we went, we were welcomed by the schools with open arms and greeted by the children with cheers and excitement. In talking to students, former students, and parents, we discovered that above anything else, these schools become like second homes to the children who attend; they make the students feel safe, feel welcome, and feel loved. As we moved from place to place, the people in each city made us feel at home, no matter how many miles we were from Notre Dame, and for this we are incredibly grateful.

We are grateful for the students we met, those who played music, those who sang songs, those who delivered speeches, and those who simply waved or gave us high-fives. Their smiles, their laughs, and their joy encouraged us.

We are grateful for the teachers, those who allowed us to interrupt their school day and welcomed us into their schools and classrooms, and who spend every day trying to make the world a better place through their teaching. Their hard work, their dedication, and their abundant caring humbled us.

We are grateful for the administrators and pastors, who did the lion’s share of the work in planning the events at the schools and allowed us to experience the joy of Catholic schools around the country. Their leadership, their presence, and their dedication impressed us.

We are grateful for those who support the ACE movement all around the country, those who joined us in our celebration, and who work hard on the ground in these cities trying to make education the best it can be. Their passion, their energy, and their generosity inspired us.

We are ultimately grateful for the gift of Catholic schools, the gift that allows all of these amazing people—teachers, administrators, pastors, supporters, and especially children—to come together and to spread the joy and excitement that a quality education can bring.

On this Thanksgiving, we—the community at the Alliance for Catholic Education and the entire University of Notre Dame—would like to thank all those we met along the way, all those who helped us make the first leg of the bus tour a success, and all those who give their lives to Catholic education in hopes of a better future for children around the country.

For all of you, we are incredibly grateful.

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