Notre Dame's ACE

On Monday mornings, the staff and faculty associated with Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) gather in a small chapel on the ground floor of Visitation Hall for Mass. This past Monday, Father Timothy Scully, CSC, who started ACE in 1993, was the celebrant when I joined the group for the Mass. The service is simple: guests, including myself, are welcomed, an introductory hymn (2 verses, very RC), a short homily, a song at communion. The passing of the peace takes awhile as these colleagues embrace each other at the beginning of their work week. Afterwards, I threaten to report the group to the Congregation for Divine Worship because I am not sure the passing of the peace was as somber as the CDW thinks it should be. After Mass, everyone heads upstairs for a breakfast together before heading off to their offices to set about their work.

And, what precisely is that work? In shorthand, some people think that ACE is trying to save Catholic parochial schools, the educational equivalent of an architectural preservation firm. This could not be more wrong. During a morning of meetings with different staff members it becomes clear that the group has no interest in maintaining the Church’s nineteenth century infrastructure for its own sake: They are passionate about educating today’s young people in schools that are not surviving but flourishing.

“For a long time, we've approached struggling Catholic schools with a hospice mentality, trying to prolong survival and minimize suffering,” says Christian Dallavis, Director of ACE Leadership programs. “What we really need is more like a Naval War College, to prepare leaders who will not just prevent more schools from closing, but will transform them, so we can continue to offer a Catholic education of the highest quality to as many children as possible. In ACE, we're trying to prepare the next generation of Catholic school leaders to embrace that mission with zeal and tenacity.” In fact, when I ask Dallavis what is the key characteristic they look for in principals and teachers he answers immediately: “Zeal. Zeal is the first quality. Then there are three areas where they need to apply that zeal: teaching and learning, executive management, and Catholic identity. All three together create the school culture.”

Dallavis and I spoke at some length about the still new ACE academies in Tampa and Tucson. In fact, this year, the ACE Academy program merged with the Leadership program Dallavis already headed, which makes sense because the academies are at the forefront of implementing the ideas ACE’s leadership program has generated. “Two members of Notre Dame's faculty work with the pastor and the superintendent of schools, as a team, to implement changes, including hiring and supervising principals. The teaching coach and recruitment staff from ACE are critical positions. But, you can't make this work without the right school leader. And, you can't make it work without the support of the local bishop as they are the ones who can convince the pastors to share the responsibility for supporting the school leader. Bishop Lynch [in Tampa] and Bishop Kicanas [in Tucson] have been entirely supportive.” Dallavis explains that “the key to this model is that a board - which consists of the pastor, superintendent, bishop, and the ACE team - holds the principal accountable for holding teachers accountable for student learning.”

The results have been not just impressive but startling. Tucson is the sixth poorest metro region in the country and ACE was brought in to help rescue three parochial schools Test scores for the students were lagging: In May 2011, only 35% of students at the three schools were proficient or advanced in reading and only 20% in math. In fact, in math scores, more students – 25% - were below the basic standards. Only 29% of 3rd grade students were at grade level in reading. Three years later, 64% are at grade level in reading, 56% are proficient or advanced in reading and 45% are proficient or advanced in math. The charts Dallavis shows me with these numbers show clear lines going up and down, all of which add up to a success story. How did it happen?

“Great leaders ensure that every policy, program, and procedure clearly and intentionally reflects the school's core beliefs,” explains Dallavis. “We used to do this naturally in Catholic schools, but in many schools we have lost this. Fifty years ago, this sense of mission and identity was taken for granted because all the teachers came from the same religious community. Today, our school leaders need to be prepared to create that same kind of unified, intentional school culture that ultimately becomes the charism of the school. He cites the example of St. Ambrose school in Tucson. They decided that one of their core beliefs was “God comes first.” So, the school year begins with Mass at which the pastor blesses the students, because “God comes first.” Then, they process to the school building where all the classrooms are blessed by the pastor, because “God comes first.” Every classroom – and even the school office – has a holy water font, so people can bless themselves as they enter – “God comes first.” On Mass days, the students wear a nicer uniform because “God comes first.” The sisters who built the Catholic school system in this country knew that God comes first. Today, in ways large and small, that same cultural knowledge is imparted to the students at St. Ambrose.

The most stunning thing to me is that at St. John the Evangelist school, in a poor, mostly Latino part of town, the turnaround happened with the same staff under which the school had been failing. “The teachers and principal knew they were looking over the edge of the cliff, on the brink of closure,” says Dallavis. The principal, Roseanne Villanueva, had been a 2nd grade teacher and she had 4 boys in the school. Her husband was commuting to El Paso and she was going to school at night to get her certificate. She was the fifth principal in six years. “It is starting to sound like a country song,” says Dallavis. But, with coaching from the ACE team, Villanueva turned the school around. Enrollment, which was down to 130 students today stands at 315. There is a waiting list to get into the school.

Father Joseph Corpora is a Holy Cross Father who has served as a pastor and taught at the University of Portland, Oregon before coming to ACE. He is of Italian and Syrian descent but he focuses on increasing Latino enrollment at ACE. If he were Irish and ruddy, he could serve as the leprechaun on Notre Dame’s cheerleading squad: His demeanor and his conversation alike are best described as elfin, a mix of wisdom and humor combined with a pastoral delight in human beings, our foibles and our promise.

We share stories about how we both came to love Latino culture and what the influx of Latinos into the U.S. Church means for the future. He hits the nail on the head: “Latino Catholics might even be God’s last-ditch effort to keep the American Catholic Church truly Catholic, sacramental and diverse.” It is true. Without the influx of Latinos – and Asians and West Africans – the American Church was in danger of becoming an upper middle class corporation with all the anxieties and dysfunctions that designation implies. Now, we are again becoming what we were in the nineteenth century and what Pope Francis has called us to become again in the twenty-first century, a poor Church for the poor.

“We have to change the way we present Catholic schools to Latinos,” Fr. Joe says. “In Latin America, there are no parochial schools. They do not come here thinking they can go to a Catholic school. Our [U.S.] schools were founded by and for Europeans. The Anglo culture is becoming more and more transactional. --- 'here is your packet, you can go online and find out more’ - but Latinos have a relational culture, they need to know who you are and why you are talking to them about Catholic schools.” Corpora wants the Church to be as savvy about presenting Catholic schools to Latinos as mainstream advertisers have become. “Look at the difference between television ads for McDonald's on Anglo and Latino television stations,” he explains. “That Anglo ad has a mom and a dad with a couple of kids. The Latino ad has the grandparents with a bunch of their grandchildren. Someone at McDonald's is paying attention and we have to do the same with our Catholic school enrollment efforts.” He says one of the secrets to recruiting in Latino communities is the hiring of madrinas and abuelas to spread the word. I would add that any bishop who is serious about increasing Latino enrollment in their schools should start by setting up a meeting with Fr. Joe. Once you are done laughing from his stories and anecdotes, you find yourself thoroughly infected by his enthusiasm. We spoke for a little more than a half an hour but he instantly joined the list of people for whom I would jump in front of a bus.

ACE also brings other experts to the table. John Schoenig knows more about public policy relating to Catholic schools than anyone I have ever met. Nicole Garnett and Peg Brinig, both law professors at Notre Dame, published an important study on the loss of social capital in neighborhoods where Catholics schools close: I reviewed their book here. ACE sends out teachers to schools nationwide, and in the poorest neighborhoods, every year and they have started working in Haiti and other poor countries as well.

ACE is an obvious example of Notre Dame fulfilling its Catholic mission, providing direct assistance to the life of the Church. But, that sense of mission is not only for export. Notre Dame is better itself, both as a university and as a Catholic university, because of ACE. It is not just the distinctly Catholic focus of their research. ACE confounds one of the most unfortunate developments in modern higher education, in which different departments become silos with little interdisciplinary effort or even discussion. ACE brings scholars at the school from a variety of fields to engage in common effort, not just saving Catholic schools but giving them the tools to flourish – and common prayer. St. Ambrose in Tucson is not the only place where God comes first. At Mass Monday morning, it became obvious to me that ACE puts God first too. Why should we be surprised that their hard work has yielded so many blessings.




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