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.