ND program sends young teachers to the undeserved

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Sunday, May 18, 2014

Maria Rodriguez works with her third-grade students during class on May 9 at Maternity BVM School, 1537 N. Lawndale Ave. Rodriguez is part of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program. ACE seeks to develop a corps of highly motivated and committed educators to meet the needs of our country’s most undeserved elementary and secondary schools. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

Twenty years after the University of Notre Dame launched the Alliance for Catholic Education, the program is developing stronger roots in Chicago.

ACE, the brainchild of Holy Cross Fathers Tim Scully and Sean McGraw, was conceived as a sort of “Teach for America” for Catholic schools, with graduates from Notre Dame sent to teach in needy schools. The teachers would live in community with one another, receive a small stipend, and, over two school years and two summers, earn master’s degrees in education from the university.

The participating schools would get bright, young, energetic teachers, and Catholic education as a whole would be enriched.

That program — Service through Teaching — has commissioned more than 1,200 teachers over the last two decades and it has expanded its pool of candidates beyond the University of Notre Dame, and it still forms the centerpiece of ACE.

But the program now includes the Mary Ann Leadership Program for Catholic school administrators and various consulting and support services for Catholic schools. Its alumni, many of whom continue as educators, have organized themselves into “ACE Advocates” groups to continue to support Catholic schools.

“When it initially started, the idea was to get some young teachers to strengthen Catholic schools,” said Benny Morten, principal of St. Ann School, 2211 W. 18th Pl. Morten participated in both the Service through Teaching program and the leadership program.

“Now it affects not just preparing teachers but also principals and other leaders. ACE does consulting, helping schools with their business models, with marketing, advocating on school choice issues, tax credit issues. It really has evolved into a program that has strengthened Catholic schools in so many ways.”

Morten had always planned to use his education to serve the community somehow. Many Notre Dame graduates take a year or two to volunteer some kind of service after graduation; Morten decided he liked the idea of serving with ACE.

He graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a business degree in 1999 and was an ACE teacher for two years at a Catholic school in Brownsville, Texas, where he ended up staying four more years. When ACE started its leadership academy in 2002, Morton was a member of the first class of six.

“The next thing you know, I’m a school principal after a few years in the classroom,” he said

When he heard that ACE wanted to bring the Service Through Teaching program to Chicago last year, he was first in line to sign St. Ann up. One of the four ACE teachers in Chicago is at his school.

All four ACE teachers in Chicago live in community together. In addition to St. Ann, there are ACE teachers at Holy Trinity High School, St. Sylvester and Maternity BVM.

Maria Rodriguez, a San Diego native, teaches third grade at Maternity BVM. She had planned to get a doctorate in anthropology or archeology.

“It was midway through my senior year, and I heard about ACE,” Rodriguez said. “I hadn’t heard about it before, but I felt there was something missing, and I thought it would be worth a try. They’re really making a difference in terms of Catholic education.”

Rodriguez did not go to Catholic elementary or high school, but she likes what she has seen of Catholic education working at Maternity BVM.

“They really focus on educating the whole person,” she said. “They take in more of the humanistic side. You’re also learning how to be a good person. It’s not just focusing on how I get to the top level. It’s helping our students grow not only to understand how they can be successful, but also to have kindness and to help other people be successful.”

She also has discovered a love of teaching, she said.

“I really love it in a different way. It’s much more hands-on,” Rodriguez said. “And I get to do archeology with my class.”

Unlike many ACE teachers, Kevin Vesulik actually considered teaching as a career option when he started college as an English and history major. When he graduated in 2009 with majors in philosophy and theology, teaching in a Catholic school environment was looking like a good possibility.

His two years as an ACE teacher cemented that idea.

“I just came to realize how much I love Catholic schools,” he said.

Vesulik, who grew up in Clarendon Hills and attended Benet Academy in Lisle, Ill., served for two years as an ACE teacher in Brownsville Texas. Now he teaches at his high school alma mater and is on the regional leadership team for the ACE Advocates. It’s an active group; Chicago has the largest concentration of ACE alumni in the country.

Vesulik said the community living component of ACE’s teaching program was immensely important for him, giving the young teachers a built-in source of support. He also said he was inspired by seeing how much of an impact each individual could have on a school.

“The little you could do had a big impact,” he said.

To keep that going, the ACE Advocates meet for social events such as happy hours, do service projects and offer professional development activities and retreats.

“We keep people who care about Catholic schools connected,” he said. “ACE has been a source of hope for Catholic education as a whole at a time when lots of Catholic schools are closing. This is a way to build up the church.”