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ACE program thrives while lawsuit looms

Angela Saoud | Wednesday, September 29, 2004

When he founded the Alliance for Catholic Education program in 1993, Father Timothy Scully had no way of knowing the impact ACE would make – or the controversy it would cause.

After 200 graduating seniors attended a trial meeting that year to express their interest in teaching after leaving Notre Dame, Scully knew he and colleague Sean McGraw were on to something.

But now – 10 years, 557 graduated teachers and countless students later – the program’s future hangs in the balance while part of its funding is disputed in court.

“[We] started the ACE program because Catholic schools in under-resourced areas of the United States were struggling to find qualified and committed teachers,” Scully said. “By the grace of God, we would like to continue to serve in this role for the Church.”

That role came under national scrutiny when Federal District Judge Gladys Kessler agreed with the American Jewish Congress in a July 2 court case that said federal money was being inappropriately used to pay for the teaching of Christian values. The plaintiffs argued that AmeriCorps should not finance programs that place volunteers in Catholic schools. Kessler sided with the plaintiffs, saying the ACE program unconstitutionally crossed the barrier between church and state and that the line between secular and nonsecular activities had become “completely blurred.”

However, on Aug. 31, Kessler entered a stay of her own ruling in light of AmeriCorps and the ACE program’s intention to appeal, University spokesman Matt Storin said Tuesday.

“She ordered that nothing [in the ACE program] would be affected until after the appeal has been heard,” Storin said. “It’s estimated that a decision on the appeal is not likely until next spring.”

And for former and current ACE students, this message is a welcome one.”No funding would be affected in the near term,” Storin said. “The judge also said that no one enrolled in the program before the appeal decision would be affected if the decision goes against us – only future enrollees.”

Of the students who went through the ACE program, 26 have received Ph.D.s in education, 38 have studied law, 12 have become doctors, six have pursued doctorates and nearly 50 others have gone on for advanced degrees in education.

Scully said the program’s surprising success is due to the far-reaching effects of its graduates.

“In terms of how many folks we anticipated, we didn’t anticipate anything,” Scully said. “In a few short years, ACE has already become the nation’s largest formations program for Catholic school teachers in the country.”

ACE has been training teachers for two-year commitments in parochial schools since 1994. After completing the teaching stint, each participant receives a master’s degree in education.

ACE teachers-in-training are allotted a stipend of $12,000 a year from the schools in which they teach. In addition, most ACE participants are also eligible to apply for and receive two annual $4,725 education vouchers, provided by AmeriCorps. To qualify, the participant completes 1,700 hours of service in or outside of the classroom that is of a non-religious affiliation.

Through the ACE program, Notre Dame also receives grants of up to $400 a year for every full-time AmeriCorps member that signs on – money that covers nearly 8 percent of salaries for the ACE faculty members who are teaching secular subjects.

ACE has recently expanded its program overseas to Ireland and Holy Cross schools in Chile. Scully said the program also hopes to expand in coming years to Uganda and east Africa.

Chris Broughton, a 2004 Notre Dame graduate, said he first decided to apply to ACE after talking with upperclassmen friends already in the program. His decision to apply was confirmed after a summer of teaching English in El Salvador through the International Summer Service Learning Program run by the Center for Social Concerns.

“I was looking for a post-graduate service program that would allow me to share the gifts and talents that I had developed at Notre Dame while also enabling me to grow in faith,” he said. “ACE just seemed like the perfect fit for me.”

Broughton said the ACE program is young but solid.

“ACE has established itself as a sound teacher training program with a proven track record of producing professional Catholic educators,” he said. “We take classes in our content areas. We do reflections throughout the program that help us to process what we’re doing, what we’re learning, where we can improve. The programs three pillars – teaching, community and spiritually – serve to integrate our professional and spiritual development in such a way that we are constantly learning how to become better teachers.”

Until the appeal is reviewed, the ACE program must wait for a resolution to come.

But Scully feels he has something powerful on his side.

“ACE has never been healthier. Ten years ago, when we began the program, we had no idea where we would be today,” he said. “I have no doubt that the future will hold the same kinds of surprises, as the Lord finds ways to serve the needs of children, and especially those among the poor. I have no doubt that the Holy Spirit is calling the program to service in bold ways that we have yet to even begin to imagine.”