Alliance for Catholic Education at St. Joe’s U.

By Jim Gauger
Special to The CS&T

How can we interest young college students to consider teaching in today’s Catholic schools?

Well, if your name is Jesuit Father Daniel R. J. Joyce you do it with an ambitious program named the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at St. Joseph’s University.

Father Joyce, along with Dr. Jeanne Brady, the associate dean for education at St. Joseph’s, and the Fox Leadership Center at the University of Pennsylvania, launched the ACE program this fall with 14 students teaching at nine Catholic urban elementary schools in the Archdiocese. {{more}}

The program works this way: The 14 teaching fellows commit to two years of full-time teaching in under-resourced Catholic schools in the Archdiocese. During this time they earn a master’s degree in elementary education from St. Joseph’s and Level I Teaching Certification in elementary education from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. They also receive a leadership certificate through the Fox Leadership Center.

The program at St. Joseph’s is modeled on the ACE program developed at the University of Notre Dame in 1994. The students receive full tuition, free housing and a stipend, about $12,000 a year. Health benefits are provided by the elementary schools. The program is funded by St. Joseph’s and “its friends in the community.”

“The majority of the 14 fellows have strong local connections,” said Father Joyce, the assistant to the vice president for Mission and Identity at St. Joseph’s. “They are getting all kinds of support as they get their master’s. They’re learning about the vocation of being a Catholic school educator. They’re all going through the same struggles. It’s tough work. The students have a wide variety of needs.”

Father Joyce said that the ACE program at Notre Dame had 370 applicants for 90 slots this year. From that pool, students could apply for acceptance in one of 16 similar ACE programs in the United States, including the program at St. Joseph’s.  

Michael O’Connor, who is the assistant program director for the ACE program at St. Joseph’s, just completed the ACE program at Notre Dame. He spent the last two years as a teaching fellow at Holy Family Elementary School in Ensley, Ala.

O’Connor, 24, grew up in Kingston, Pa. “It was my first time in the South, and I was teaching a largely African-American student community,” he said. “It was very powerful to be so welcomed. I was an outsider. It showed how a community can come together over a common mission.”

O’Connor said that the students’ “test scores rose a couple of points” during the two years he was there. He is very excited about the St. Joseph’s program.

“The main thing is having good relationships with the leadership at the schools and working with the teaching fellows, offering them what we can to help them out,” he said. “The key is to figure out what the needs of the schools are and address them.”

The local teaching fellows spent six weeks at St. Joseph’s during the summer preparing for their appointments. They attended class and also performed student teaching at local schools.

The three pillars of the ACE program are teaching (in elementary schools), community (living together in housing provided by the program) and spirituality (connecting the fellows’ particular faith tradition to faith-based education).

The 14 teaching fellows reside at the St. Mary of the Assumption convent in Manayunk. They share the cooking and cleaning chores.

Caitlin Slover, 22, is one of the 14 teaching fellows. She is a fourth-grade teacher at St. Dominic School in the Holmesburg section of Philadelphia. Slover grew up in Southampton and graduated from Archbishop Wood High School in Warminister. At the University of Pennsylvania she played four years of women’s varsity basketball and was captain of the 2009-2010 team. She served on the student athlete advisory committee, was a member of Penn Pals Community Service and coached at summer basketball camps.

Slover’s degree is in communications. Teaching, however, has always been her goal. “I went to Penn undecided,” Slover said. “Penn doesn’t have an undergraduate program in education. I had a professor during my freshman year — a children and media class — and that got me hooked. Communications is pretty prevalent in our everyday lives. I can understand how kids use so much technology today.”

Slover said she saw an ad in The Daily Pennsylvanian newspaper about the ACE program at St. Joseph’s and she applied.

“I had a great experience at Wood and at Our Lady of Good Counsel (Southampton),” she said. “I enjoyed coming to school every day. I knew that the teachers really cared about me. I had great teachers and that made me want to be a teacher.”

Slover says she keeps in touch with her former teachers. When she can squeeze it in, she is also an assistant coach for the girls’ basketball team at Wood. “Basketball taught me time management,” Slover said. “It’s a key to being a teacher. Although I’m busy, I’m never stressed out because I’ve learned how to devote my time.”

At St. Dominic’s, Slover teaches social studies, religion, math, science and integrative language arts to a class of 17 students. Challenging? Yes, said Slover. “It’s a constant learning process. I’ve been fortunate to have a great partner (Pat Stone, also a fourth-grade teacher) and a great support team,” she said, adding teachers in grades three through five meet once a week to exchange notes.

Slover said a career teaching in the Archdiocese is a strong possibility “because I grew up here.”

David Mazzuca, 22, a former political science major at Villanova University, is a teaching fellow at Our Mother of Sorrows School in West Philadelphia. Mazzuca, a native of Bellerose, N.Y., was involved in athletic promotions at Villanova. He introduced the players at men’s and women’s athletic events and became known as the “Voice of Villanova.”

Mazzuca said he became interested in volunteer service work and was attracted to the ACE program. “I looked at the history of the program at Notre Dame,” Mazzuca said. “I’m not shy about speaking in front of a group of people and having confidence in what I am saying. I was interested in Catholic schools in an urban area. I know there are parishes that are closing. It was imperative for me, having benefited from a Catholic education, to give it a try. I really wanted to teach.”

At Our Mother of Sorrows, Mazzuca teaches fifth grade — religion, integrative language arts and social studies. He admits that he was concerned whether a background of four years of political science prepared him for a classroom, but it has worked out well. “I am interested in helping my students understand how things work.” he said.

Mazzuca said he depends on his ACE community “of 13 strong inspaniduals who I lean on for support. I’m looking forward to the next two years.” Mazzuca hopes to return to New York to teach in schools in which he grew up, St. Gregory the Great and Regis High School.

Elise Baker is the past president of the student body at St. Joseph’s University and a former officer in student senate. Baker, 23, from Drexel Hill, majored in English and volunteered at the Gesu School in North Philadelphia while at St. Joseph’s.

“I heard about the Notre Dame program and I was taking Father Joyce’s class, a service learning course,” said Baker, who teaches at Epiphany of Our Lord in South Philadelphia. “My service placement was at the Gesu School. I asked for an application (for the St. Joseph’s ACE program). I liked the idea of giving back to the community, especially with kids. I was drawn to the spirituality and community aspect of the program.”

Baker, who also has minors in communications and faith-justice studies, teaches fourth grade — religion, social studies, science, math and integrative language arts.

“Teaching has challenges and triumphs,” she said. “There are things you can’t be prepared for. At the end of the day, I write down some of the great things that happen in the classroom. I have a lot of fun stories. I am invested in the students’ success.”

As for the future, Baker is “taking it one day at a time.” “I would say yes (to teaching in the future),” she said. “I do like sharing the faith aspect with the students.”

According to Father Joyce, 70 percent of ACE graduates nationally are still teaching in Catholic schools after five years.

“The teaching fellows are getting two years experience, getting a degree and a course designed to attend to the needs of urban Catholic schools,” Father Joyce said. “The schools are getting teachers for free. They are talented inspaniduals, and they will save the Archdiocese just shy of $1 million over the two years.”

The teaching fellows are just over two months into the ACE program. In November they participated in a retreat together. They reflected and re-stoked the fires of their very worthwhile commitment.

Jim Gauger is a freelance writer and a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish, Glenside.