Educating the Least of These

An NRO Interview
The Alliance for Catholic Education trains teachers to go to the margins of society.

‘I was brought to this earth to bring joy to the students I teach,” one Catholic school teacher testified at a prayer service at St. Anthony School in Washington, D.C., two weeks ago. “A successful Catholic school teacher,” Ms. Turner said, “gives herself to others and to Christ.”

The occasion was a visit from the Alliance for Catholic Education, a project of the University of Notre Dame, which aims to “sustain, strengthen, and transform Catholic schools” by educating teachers in academic excellence, spiritual rigor, and community so that they can effectively work in inner-city Catholic schools. ACE’s bus tour stopped at St. Anthony School to award Cardinal Donald Wuerl for his commitment to Catholic education, particularly in D.C.’s poorest and most dangerous areas.

Tonight in New York City, the Manhattan Institute will honor Father Timothy Scully, another man committed to Catholic education. He’s being awarded the William E. Simon Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Social Entrepreneurship for founding, building, and leading ACE and its “teachers for the poor.” Fr. Scully talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about ACE and Catholic education.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What is the ACE difference in terms of innovation? 

FR. TIMOTHY SCULLY: One of the reasons that the Alliance for Catholic Education is in a unique position within the education-reform movement at the university level is because Notre Dame does not have a traditional school of education. This has given us the freedom and flexibility to respond creatively to local and national needs with a vast network of resources and to engage a broader network of stakeholders. The alliances we’ve formed with dioceses, other universities, and within our own Notre Dame network have allowed us to address the needs we’ve identified quickly to ensure results that will benefit our students immediately.
 

LOPEZ: Who is an ACE teacher? What makes him or her different?

FR. SCULLY: It’s difficult to answer the question of who an ACE teacher is. As I think about our community, there are just so many deeply committed, exceptionally talented and fun — but incredibly different — identities and backgrounds in that group. If there’s one universal feature, it would have to be what you might call a “whatever it takes” spirit. It’s just amazing to see the lengths to which these young people go to unlock the potential of the kids with whom they work.

I sometimes worry that there’s been a bit of a loss of what you might call the “romantic imagination” among college students. I’m concerned that some of these young people are trying to script every move from freshman orientation all the way through graduation. ACE teachers tend to be different on that count. They’re adventurous spirits, and they love to have a good time. They’re enchanted by the idea that they can leverage their college education in such a way so as to become the best teacher a group of students may ever have.
 

LOPEZ: What is ACE’s greatest success story? 

FR. SCULLY: We prefer not to think in terms of “success stories#…#” The minute you think you have a “success story” is the minute you risk complacency and even a touch of hubris. But we have experienced some exciting new opportunities and challenges lately! We’ve developed a university-school partnership model called the Notre Dame ACE Academies (NDAA). Our aspiration for NDAA is to provide a Catholic education of the highest quality to as many children as possible in under-resourced communities. It involves unique governance structures, a relentless focus on maximizing participation in parental-choice programs, and a comprehensive framework of school support in areas such as instructional excellence, stewardship, and Catholic identity. One important element of our model is the availability of public-private partnerships, such as state tax credits and vouchers, such as is the case in Arizona and Florida. Just a few years after the launch of the first NDAA in Tucson, we’re seeing some very promising results — both in terms of enrollment and achievement. For example, at St. John the Evangelist — a Catholic school in the sixth poorest city in the nation — the older students are dramatically closing the achievement gap, and the youngest students are among the highest performing (top 10 percent) in the nation. We often like to say that finish line for the students in our NDAA schools is twofold: college and heaven. I’m very excited about the progress we’ve made towards those goals thus far.

LOPEZ: When you look around and see Catholic schools and parishes closing, what do you say? 

FR. SCULLY: It’s often tempting in life to dwell on the headwinds that face any important effort. In the Alliance for Catholic Education, we are busy trying to figure out innovative ways of “sailing into the wind” and tacking. . . .Part of the excitement of our apostolate is to unlock the opportunities hidden in the stiff challenges we face. That’s really been the great joy of working with ACE — there’s just such an infectious, action-oriented zeal to this community.
 

Catholic schools have their share of challenges, to be sure. But at the same time, there are now more signs of hope for Catholic schools (and, more importantly, for the children and families they can serve) than there have been in at least a generation. I can’t think of a more exciting time to be serving such an important need.

LOPEZ: Is there a winning formula for teachers working with parents?

FR. SCULLY: We believe the parent is the primary educator of every student. We also believe the parent is not the only educator. There is sometimes a tendency to blame parents and absolve teachers especially in difficult circumstances, but we know that the only way children will receive the best possible education is if the teacher is willing to do whatever it takes, even if the parent is not.

We have to have an honest, open, eye-to-eye understanding between schools, teachers, parents, and their students. If we do that, we can get ahead of any trouble with which a student might be faced.
 

LOPEZ: Is ACE key to renewal of Catholic education? 

FR. SCULLY: The key to the renewal of Catholic education is to apply the energy and zeal of the most highly talented individuals of our communities and our church to the work of Catholic education. ACE is attempting to do that by finding, recruiting, and forming the next generation of leaders for our nation’s Catholic schools. We believe we have created a model based on what that key to renewal is.
 

LOPEZ: From an organizational point of view, what makes ACE work? 

FR. SCULLY: There are several keys to ACE’s success from an organizational point of view. First, ACE really is an alliance in every sense of the word, as we have cultivated partnerships with dioceses across the United States in an effort to meet their needs. Second, although we have a clear mission — to strengthen and transform Catholic schools — ACE has fostered a nimble and responsive organizational culture from the outset. In fact, our early cohorts joked that ACE really stands for “always changing everything!” But we see this openness to change, and striving to improve continuously, as vital to our growth. Fortunately, ACE is housed in Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives, an interdisciplinary institute in which fresh and imaginative approaches to practical challenges can and do flourish.
 

LOPEZ: How does ACE fit in at Notre Dame? Does it help with its identity beyond football?

FR. SCULLY: ACE is a natural outgrowth of Notre Dame’s mission to be a force for good in the world through our interdisciplinary research on education, our formation of teachers and leaders, and our professional services that seek to transform schools. And while we embrace Notre Dame football and all the good it has done to draw attention and resources to the University, our experience shows that ACE enhances Notre Dame’s reputation among key stakeholders — our alumni, Church and school leaders, the education-reform community, and (most importantly) the thousands of students and families influenced by ACE teachers, leaders, and graduates.
 

LOPEZ: Is there any question that the ACE teacher is Catholic? What does the Catholicity mean? What does it look like? Does it foster excellence? 

FR. SCULLY: Though the majority of ACE participants are Catholic, the program is open to people of all faiths. We are looking for young leaders who are serious and very engaged in their faith commitments, and who possess a strong passion to contribute to the spiritual growth of their students and the Catholic character of their schools. Our teacher-formation program includes coursework, a series of spiritual retreats, liturgies, and other opportunities specifically geared for these young leaders to grow in both their own spiritual lives, as well as in their effectiveness in helping students grow in their spiritual lives.

Part of the “secret sauce” of Catholic schools’ educational effectiveness is the character formation, discipline, and human flourishing that derives, in part, from the moral and spiritual formation that Catholic schools are so good at providing. A vibrant spiritual life also helps teachers handle the challenges and heavy demands of beginning teaching, including a strong sense of service and teaching as a vocation. So the spiritual formation of our teachers is very much a part of their overall effectiveness as teachers, as well as the extremely high retention rates that ACE has achieved with its teachers.

LOPEZ: Is there a unique ACE spirituality? Is there a difference your being a Holy Cross priest makes? 

FR. SCULLY: ACE’s spirituality is based first and foremost on the person of Christ the Teacher — we are constantly inviting our teachers to come to a deeper understanding of Christ in his most common day-to-day identity, which was a teacher. We invite our ACE teachers to reflect, and try to model their own service, on such characteristics of Jesus’ teaching as: his passion, his integrity (there was no gap between what he taught and how he lived), the way he loved and gave his life for those he was teaching, his perseverance through the inevitable difficulties and disappointments of teaching, his willingness to reach into the daily lives of those whom he taught (like in the parables) and help them see the deeper meanings of life, and ultimately to recognize God at work in their daily lives.

ACE has also always been focused on the Eucharist — it’s a natural for our teachers. They come to know quickly how much time, energy, and gifts they will constantly need to be pouring out for their students. In the Eucharist, the ACE teachers come to recognize how Christ is pouring out his life to give us life, to literally feed us, so that they can then go out and do the same for their students.

My religious community, the Congregation of Holy Cross, has deeply marked the spirituality of ACE. Holy Cross’s identity, as one can see in our commitment to the University of Notre Dame, is to be “educators in the faith” — and it’s a distinctive kind of education. Our founder Basil Moreau, who founded the order in the wake of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment’s near-exclusive exultation of reason as the sole guiding force in human formation, instead formed a teaching community who would always educate “both the mind and the heart” — the total human person. And our order has always had a very strong apostolic bent — that is, we have always been an order that has sought to go beyond current boundaries to serve wherever our gifts were most needed. This has marked ACE’s desire to go to cities and rural areas that are in most need of energetic and faith-filled teachers.
 

LOPEZ: Can specific ACE stories help Americans understand what it is that Pope Francis is talking about? 

FR. SCULLY: I love Pope Francis’ idea that in the world today, it is not enough to simply open the doors of our churches and welcome people in. As he said in Brazil, we ourselves must walk out the doors of our churches, out into the lives of others — as Christ the Teacher constantly did — and meet them where they are, and then welcome them into a deeper life of faith. In this sense, it is so enlivening for my own faith and priesthood to see so many young people willing to leave the somewhat secure boundaries of their lives as undergraduates, where they’ve been so successful, and have been often surrounded by many peers with similar beliefs, and go out and risk entering a difficult and very demanding profession — both to be a teacher and to be a role model in the faith. But this is the kind of risk and the kind of discipleship — going out, especially to the margins of society — that I think Pope Francis is inviting us to.
 

LOPEZ: How has ACE been important to your life as a priest?

FR. SCULLY: If it’s true that, in the end, life is all about relationships, relationship with yourself, others, and our God, then the treasured relationships in my life that have been provided through our mission in the Alliance for Catholic Education has been the most important and life-giving ingredient to my life as a priest and as a person. I thank God every single day at the Eucharist for the endless graces that come from these awesome and inspiring friends and fellow disciples.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of NRO.