Rewriting a Future for Catholic Schools through the Reform Leaders’ Summit
By: Darby Evans
When Ricky Austin read the 2005 Notre Dame Task Force on Catholic Education report during his second year as an ACE Teaching Fellow, he was startled and inspired. Catholic schools were at an inflection point. They were closing at an alarming rate, and without intervention, they could disappear entirely from inner cities. Austin, now the director of programs and communications at the Aim Higher Foundation in Minnesota, felt a stirring in his heart as he read the conclusion of the report: “Will it be said of our generation that we abandoned [Catholic schools,] these powerful instruments of justice that provide educational opportunity and hope for families otherwise trapped in poverty?”
Austin, who converted to Catholicism during his senior year at Notre Dame, found direction in that moment. He knew that he had to become part of the solution; as the report suggested, he needed to join the movement that was rewriting the future of Catholic schools and the children within their walls.
“That was my ‘a-ha moment’... this sense that I need to be a part of this,” Austin says. “As a second-year teacher, I wasn’t sure what that looked like yet, but it was clear what my calling was. I just needed to jump in head first to do whatever it was that I could do to help.”
The task force’s report gave Austin purpose, and it was his work with ACE’s Reform Leaders' Summit that helped him form a vision for how he might contribute to the movement to revitalize Catholic schools and their ability to serve low-income and immigrant children. Specifically, he says, the network he forged with speakers at the Summit was integral to his career path and calling in education reform. He felt particularly compelled by the message of Howard Fuller, the legendary champion of school reform who spoke at the Summit.
“Howard really put this idea into perspective for me…he outlined how the problems [with America’s education system] are so extraordinarily complex. And yet, there are no silver bullets to fix any of them,” Austin says. “It’s going to take a lot of time, a lot of work, and a lot of struggle to see the change we all want to see. But here’s Howard’s starting point: Every kid should have access to a great school. If we can’t do that by tomorrow, I’m still going to get up and get to work to try to help as many children as possible.”
It’s safe to say that Austin has no shortage of experience with the Reform Leaders’ Summit. Austin was a part of the very first Summit (then known as the Parental Choice Symposium) as a leader of the Chicago ACE Advocates group, and then as an ACE staff member he helped to plan and organize the next three conferences with John Schoenig. After that, Austin led the marketing for the event as the head of the ACE communications team until 2016. He rejoined as a participant in 2017 as part of a contingent from Minnesota.
Throughout his many Summit experiences, Austin appreciates most the opportunity to form relationships with leaders of the educational choice movement. Conversations at Summit meetings span from professional to personal; Austin says he connected with Fuller and Seton Education Partners’ Jeff Kerscher over their shared interest of music and DJing, and he still stays in touch with Derrell Bradford about their love of soccer. The deep immersion into the multi-faceted content of the Summit—along with these friendships—Austin says, helped propel him to his current position at Aim Higher Foundation, an organization that works to remove the financial barriers facing children and families who want to attend a Catholic school.
“Understanding what’s happening in ed reform is understanding the people who are leading the change. The longer you serve in the education space, the more you realize that there's just so much more work to do to ensure we have strong, healthy schools. But on your own, there are very few guides for how to get us there,” Austin says. “If you want to help kids get a great education, you need to understand who is who in the movement and why they are doing what they are doing. The Summit connects you to those people and those ideas in a personal, intimate, and life-changing way.”
Austin says that the Summit not only improved his access to a career focused on helping children get a great education, but the in-person sessions and virtual learning communities increased his professional knowledge and expertise as well.
“The Reform Leaders’ Summit was, and continues to be, a vital piece of my career development because it gave me a deep understanding of the education reform field,” he says. “It also helped inform my own philosophy and ethos of what a school system should look like and what I need to be willing to do in order to see about that change.”
When Austin rereads the Task Force report now, he feels confident that he is living out his vocation. Through his own efforts and his experiences with the Summit, he is helping to change the lives of thousands of children in the Twin Cities. He started out on a journey to revitalize Catholic schools and, along the way, found the tools, networks, and mindset to help all children, regardless of income, access the schools that best prepare them for a better future.
Learn more about the Reform Leaders' Summit and apply at ace.nd.edu/reform-leaders-summit.