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ACE teachers work to clean up from Katrina

Josh Leeuw | Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Two years after the destructive waves of Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, parts of the Gulf Coast remain in shambles and Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) remains at the forefront of the rebuilding efforts.

“Many houses still have the red Xs on them, debris covers the yards and mold has taken over homes, but the Catholic schools have responded amazingly well to the situation,” said Professor John Staud, director of ACE.  “Catholic schools are still going strong.”

Since 1994, ACE has been placing young college graduates as teachers in under-privileged Catholic schools across the nation.

Two of those schools are Louisiana’s Cathedral Academy, in the French Quarter of New Orleans, and St. Peter Claver, about 10 blocks away from Cathedral. Hurricane Katrina considerably damaged both schools in 2005, Staud said. St. Peter Claver’s parish sustained significant damage and is still collecting donations for its reconstruction. The Cathedral Academy suffered severe flooding and roof damage – and it lost its playground.

But more important than the infrastructure, the two schools lost teachers that didn’t return after the storm.

Enter the Notre Dame ACE program.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans requested ACE’s help to send teachers to these schools. Staud said. Today there are four ACE teachers in Louisiana, he said, answering that call.

Staud said many schools have told him “if it weren’t for the ACE program, their schools would be closed.” Besides Louisiana, ACE has over 175 teachers serving numerous communities across the country. Most of the time, he said, the ACE program tries to place its teachers in dioceses where they can help under-privileged or minority children.

“I think this really [exemplifies] what ACE is about,” Staud said. “We have a desire to work personally with the graduate students to make them the best teacher they can be.”

Liz Stowe, a former ACE teacher in Biloxi, Miss., said she tried to be the best teacher she could be in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. She said classes at her school, Resurrection Elementary, resumed “seven weeks after the storm and they had nothing in the classrooms.”

Resurrection was completely flooded during the storm and though the building didn’t collapse, all the furniture and school supplies were lost. Stowe said at first it was a challenge teaching children with a broken morale – and without any supplies. But as donations came in throughout the year (in the form of crayons, notebooks and desks), she slowly returned to a more normal classroom routine.

“It wasn’t until March that we got doors on the hinges,” said Stowe, who is now the assistant director of the pastoral staff.

But ACE’s efforts in the South don’t end there. This year, the program is sponsoring a service trip for undergraduates considering the ACE program, Staud said. The group will spend two days in Biloxi in January, volunteering at Resurrection Elementary.

Some of the students’ work will include landscaping, disinfecting the cafeteria, painting picnic tables and refurbishing the playground. Since it’s hard to find accommodations in Katrina-torn Biloxi right now, the group will sleep in the high school gym. After their stay in Biloxi, the group will travel to New Orleans to work at St. Peter Claver and Cathedral Academy schools.

At St. Peter Claver, the group will paint and possibly help construct service buildings for the severely damaged school, Staud said. At Cathedral Academy, the students will try to turn the empty parking lot where the playground once stood into a space where children can spend their recesses by painting hopscotch and four-square boxes on the cement floor.

The grueling schedule, Staud said, is a taste of an ACE teacher’s daily experience.

“This is more than a service experience, this is an immersion experience.” Stowe said.

Founded in 1994 by Fathers Tim Scully and Sean McGraw of Notre Dame, ACE was created in response to the declining number of teachers in Catholic schools. In its inaugural year, ACE placed 40 students in under-privileged Catholic schools across the nation.

An intensive two-year program that also allows its participants to receive a Notre Dame Masters in Education degree after its completion, ACE is now sending close to 200 teachers to over 100 Catholic schools all over the United States. ACE now boasts about 1,000 alumni, Staud said.

“Many alumni that have gone through the ACE program have stayed in education. But many have also gone to get their Ph.D.s or have been accepted into law or med school,” Staud said. “And even though some have gone on to different fields (besides education), the principles they learned in ACE have helped them become better people not only in their fields, but in their lives.”

He said, ultimately, the program is not just aiming to “bring out the best possible teachers, but also to help people discern their vocation.”