By STEPHEN O’KANE, Staff Writer | Published October 23, 2008
When Elizabeth Stewart first met teachers from Notre Dame University’s Alliance for Catholic Education program in her hometown of Mobile, Ala., these young teachers helped her discern where God was calling her.
Nearly a decade later she is serving Atlanta’s Catholic schools in exactly the same way.
Stewart described the “ACE-ers” she met in 1998 as “exuberant and interesting people who went out of their way to make a difference for other people.”
“ACE teachers were a big reason that I decided to go to Notre Dame and eventually were the reason that I decided to join ACE, too,” she said.
ACE is a two-year teacher-preparation and service program that offers college graduates an opportunity to serve as full-time teachers in under-resourced Catholic schools across the southern United States while earning a master’s in education from Notre Dame.
Currently five teachers from the program work in four Atlanta archdiocesan schools: St. Peter Claver, Decatur; St. John the Evangelist, Hapeville; Immaculate Heart of Mary, Atlanta; and St. Joseph, Marietta.
Established in 1994, ACE was designed as a “response to the growing need for talented and faithful Catholic school educators,” the program’s Web site states. ACE originally placed 40 college graduates in Catholic elementary and secondary schools in eight dioceses throughout the Southeast. Currently ACE annually supports nearly 200 teachers in over 100 Catholic schools in 14 states.
Having attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through graduate school, Stewart recognized the need to hand on to others the quality education she received.
“There is a serious need for excellence in the classroom in Catholic education, and teaching is something that brings me deep gladness. ACE is a perfect fit,” she said.
A first-year teacher of fourth-graders at St. Joseph School, Stewart feels she is answering the call to serve others which she first heard as a Notre Dame undergraduate.
It is a feeling that is shared by her fellow ACE teachers, who teach subjects such as language arts, mathematics and Spanish.
Ryan Kelly, another first-year teacher, found the program’s Web site while researching graduate schools during his junior year at Syracuse University in upstate New York.
He was looking to study education at the graduate level and did not want to travel too far from home.
“I stumbled upon the program when browsing the Notre Dame site,” Kelly recalled.
“After attending Catholic school, working at a Catholic summer camp for six years, and serving as a confirmation mentor, the program seemed to be a wonderful fit and the logical next step. Additionally, it gave me the opportunity to continue as a student while gaining professional experience in the real world.”
Currently he serves as the middle school language arts teacher at Immaculate Heart of Mary School.
The ACE program boasts an intense curriculum in which students spend two summers studying in the master’s program at Notre Dame’s campus in South Bend, Ind., and two school years teaching in Catholic schools.
ACE participants also live in small communities and share the many joys, triumphs and difficulties of starting a career as a teacher.
Stewart feels this is one of the most effective aspects of the program.
“Having a houseful of teachers makes a wonderful environment for a first-year teacher. It is helpful to get feedback on a lesson plan idea, or a classroom management strategy, or just to swap stories with,” she said.
She shares a living space with Kelly and three second-year teachers, who help the first-year teachers adjust to leading a classroom of children.
The ACE Web site states that “participants are encouraged to develop their own personal spirituality in the context of community and to share with one another the journey of becoming committed Catholic school teachers.”
“It’s about being a member of a spiritual community, and it’s about being in a personal relationship with Christ,” said Melissa Green, the communications coordinator for ACE. “They are in this to be spiritually formed as much as they are professionally prepared.”
Green, who is a graduate of the ACE program herself, has served as the communications coordinator for nearly a year with her husband, Brian, who works as the senior associate director for ACE Fellowship, the branch of the program that keep ACE alumni connected and in touch.
Bill Canning, a second-year ACE teacher who serves as a middle school language arts teacher at St. John the Evangelist, describes the ACE program as a “wonderful experience” that doesn’t leave out the spiritual aspect of teaching.
Canning, who converted to Catholicism during his freshman year at the University of Pennsylvania, said he knew he wanted to teach when he came across the ACE program.
“It fit well with what I was looking for,” he said, again mentioning that ACE incorporated the religious aspect of teaching, which is important to him.
For Canning, experiencing a Catholic school for the first time was like “a whole new world.” He feels Catholic schools have a much better sense of community and he has had a wonderful experience with his school.
“The kids are fantastic,” he said. “They really respond to what you are doing.”
Canning also said he was impressed with his fellow teachers and administrators and the overall strong spirituality of the school.
Also serving at St. John the Evangelist is a former ACE participant. Kate Aiello, who completed the ACE program last year, stayed at the school to continue teaching Spanish.
Aiello affectionately described the ACE program a “spiritual, academic boot camp” because of its intensive design.
“They give you a lot of support and training that you might not get elsewhere,” Aiello said.
She said there is a freedom in being able to share one’s faith in an educational atmosphere and that ACE effectively prepares a teacher for this method of teaching.
“The spiritual pillar is an important factor in ACE,” Aiello said.
Like Canning, Aiello was impressed by the strong spiritual nature of St. John the Evangelist.
“What impacted my spirituality in a profound way was my students,” said Aiello. “They take prayer very seriously.”
In addition to the “genuine faith” of the principal, Karen Vogtner, Aiello feels the school is a wonderful place for teachers and students alike.
ACE trains teachers using three pillars: teaching, community and spirituality. The program seeks to provide teachers “with the preparation and formation to become professional educators, build loving communities and live active, faithful lives,” according to its Web Site.
ACE also offers a leadership program that prepares individuals for service in Catholic schools as principals and administrators. Established in 2002, the 26-month program features coursework and internships and encompasses the dispositions of becoming a professional administrator, fostering school community and promoting spiritual formation.
The ACE program is tackling new ways to assist Catholic schools throughout the country as well. According to Green, ACE Consulting was recently added to provide professional services at an affordable cost to “at risk” schools.
“We’re at such an interesting crossroads in our organizational history because … we’re moving in a direction that is much more comprehensive,” Green said. “Research on Catholic schools and professional services for Catholic schools are really marking areas of growth for us.”
In the meantime, the ACE teacher preparation program remains the “bread and butter” for Notre Dame’s graduate program.
The ACE participants in Atlanta are a testament to that and say they are enjoying utilizing their new skills, learning from each other and exploring what Atlanta has to offer.
“I love everything about the school I am serving at; it is a wonderful community,” said Kelly, who also mentioned he is looking forward to the light Atlanta winter.
“Similar to many teachers, I have quickly learned that planning and grading can take up a significant amount of time. Nevertheless, the opportunity to work with curious young people is what keeps me energized,” he said.
Stewart expressed a similar sentiment.
“As a first-year ACE teacher, I … have mixed emotions of being overwhelmed by the task at hand and being overly enthusiastic at the idea of having the (sometimes) rapt attention of 30 10-year-olds,” she said.
“I have also been overwhelmed by the amazingly warm welcome I have been offered, both by the Archdiocese of Atlanta as a whole and by St. Joseph Catholic School in Marietta, where I teach,” she added. “I could not ask for a more supportive community in which to work and I am very thankful for such a blessing.”