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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.

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.   

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.

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.


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 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.

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