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Graduates teach in underprivileged schools

Ann Marie Jakubowski | Thursday, November 8, 2012

The Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) Service through Teaching program at Notre Dame promotes learning from both sides of the classroom, providing education to students at Catholic schools nationwide while enabling their teachers to pursue master’s degrees through the University.

Established in 1994, ACE sends Notre Dame graduates, among others, to Catholic elementary and high schools across the southern half of the United States to complete two years of teaching. In addition to their work as full-time teachers, ACE participants also do master’s coursework through Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives.

Sarah Greene, associate director of ACE Service through Teaching, said the program’s mission is rooted in the Holy Cross tradition of the University.

“The Congregation of the Holy Cross that founded Notre Dame has a tradition of educating both the mind and the heart, and this is certainly something that the ACE participants live out in their Catholic schools,” Greene said. “We see a real commitment to service through Catholic education in the schools, and this reinforces the University’s own mission.”    

Greene said the program has expanded greatly in the past 18 years and now sends 90 teachers to 29 dioceses across the United States each year.

“The program began in order to send interested Notre Dame graduates to under-resourced Catholic schools in the southeastern [United States] and it developed over time,” Greene said. “Now it is a two-year Master’s of Education program coupled with this service teaching in Catholic schools, with four to eight ACE members living in each diocese to share the rewards and challenges of teaching.”

Steven Alagna, a member of Notre Dame’s Class of 2011 and an ACE participant, currently teaches at San Juan del Rio Catholic School in Jacksonville, Fla. Alagna, who studied political science and Spanish as an undergraduate, said he enjoys the sense of community among the ACE teachers in Jacksonville as well as the interaction with other diocesan teachers.

“One of my favorite parts of ACE is that ACE teachers live in community with the other ‘ACErs’ serving in their diocese,” Alagna said. “The six of us in the Jacksonville community are at six different schools, so while we all have our living situation in common, we also have different experiences at our schools. There is a wide range in racial and socioeconomic demographics, which always leads to enlightening conversations at community dinner.”

Alagna said outside of their teaching work, ACE participants take online classes during the school year to complete their master’s coursework and are observed by University supervisors once each semester. They also return to South Bend for two summers to take education classes at the University.

“The combination of living in a new city, completing master’s coursework and being first-time teachers can be very challenging,” Alagna said. “My experience in the Diocese of St. Augustine has shown me that ACE teachers are typically well-regarded by their peers in the diocese. I felt really prepared by my coursework at Notre Dame during the summer before my first year of teaching.”

Caitlin Wrend, another member of Notre Dame’s Class of 2011 and an ACE teacher at San Xavier Mission School in Tuscon, Ariz., said the balance between this master’s coursework and daily teaching duties is quite difficult to achieve.

“It is a challenge, especially to keep your primary focus on the elementary teaching, but it’s not an overwhelming amount of work,” Wrend said. “Plus, the intention of the master’s coursework is to make us better teachers, so it’s important to keep that mindset and realize that this material will help us improve in the classroom.”

Wrend said her experience at the school in Tuscon reaffirmed her desire to work with children.

“Later on down the road, teaching is definitely something I want to go back to, but now I’m considering another avenue to work with kids that have unstable home lives,” Wrend said. “I really love teaching the kids, but I’d like to find a way to help provide more stability for them outside the [8 a.m. to 3 p.m.] time frame.”

Although Alagna has not yet determined his career path after his time in Jacksonville, he said the program has altered his perception of the working world.

“While many ACE teachers move on to other professions like law school or the business world, I think most are committed to teaching for the right reasons and not to further their own careers,” Alagna said. “I am not sure that I will continue teaching in the immediate future after my two years in ACE. Still, I know that whatever I end up doing, it will be informed and made more meaningful by the experience I’m having in ACE.”