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The sun sears the blue cafeteria door at Saint John the Evangelist School in Tucson, Arizona. It’s 7:15 a.m. on a Wednesday in May. School’s out come Memorial Day, a happy thought for the children streaming inside to laugh, relax and eat breakfast before morning assembly. Today’s forecasted high is 97 degrees — perfectly seasonable for this desert city 60 miles north of the Mexican border — but the air conditioning is broken and fans are working overtime. Principal Keiran Roche says the power has shut off 15 times this week.

The usual wisdom says you throw in the towel on such days. There’s no point fighting the discomfort and the dreams of summer freedom floating on the hot breeze. But Saint John’s pays little mind to the usual wisdom on most matters of education. As any one of its 210 students in the preschool through the eighth grade would tell you, “Every minute counts.” They hear that phrase from Mr. Roche and their teachers every day. It’s one of the school’s root beliefs. It’s part of the culture.

Every minute counts for Priscilla Bussari, too, and she has 15 this morning to talk about the changes she’s seen at Saint John’s since 2010. That’s when the school where she’s sent her children for the past 14 years partnered with Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education to become one of three inaugural Notre Dame ACE Academies. Her youngest is in kindergarten, the first of her five kids not encumbered by the “achievement gap” from day one, meaning that Saint John’s kindergarten now outperforms national averages in reading and math. In fact, this past April, kindergartners at Saint John’s and the other two academies — neighboring parish schools on Tucson’s struggling south side — scored in the 86th percentile in math and the 91st percentile in reading on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills taken by children all over the country.

Bussari, an ACE Academy board member, says she stuck with Saint John’s all those years because the teachers loved the students and worked hard, and she and her husband wanted their children to practice their faith every day. Now, besides the skyrocketing test scores, the difference comes to this: “They talk about college,” she says. “Even my little kindergartner.” Kids didn’t do that when Bussari grew up in Saint John’s parish. Her parents couldn’t afford the school.

Over Bussari’s shoulder, a girl wearing an Arizona Diamondbacks cap chats over pancakes with friends. Principal Roche says 85 percent of Saint John’s students qualify for meal assistance. Next to her, a boy has lost himself in a book. All of the children wear blue ACE Academy T-shirts proclaiming “My Goals: College/Heaven” in large gold and white letters.

Teachers remember when kids didn’t need desks with cubbies. They had nothing to put in them. The scarcity was symptomatic of deeper problems. Debt was out of control, and the parish and diocese were in no position to help. Principal Roche’s predecessors — and there have been many since the Bussaris enrolled their oldest child — had no personnel to help prospective families learn how to apply for scholarships or take advantage of Arizona’s tuition tax credit; no money for teachers’ professional development. While the number of empty seats grew, the neighborhoods were — and still are — full of children from poor families. Many are parishioners and most are Latinos, but such families often see Catholic education as a luxury they cannot afford.

If the circumstances are challenging now, they had sunk to the point three years ago when the school would have closed had Tucson’s bishop not picked up the phone and called Notre Dame. Saint John’s was one tough decision away from becoming just another sad case study in the sad saga of the nation’s Catholic schools.

As it happened, awaiting Bishop Gerald Kicanas on the other end of the line was an idea looking for him.

Story time

This past March, Sonia Sotomayor visited her childhood alma mater, Blessed Sacrament School in the Bronx. It was not a happy occasion. The school doors would soon close for the last time and Sotomayor was there to console the children. In June, The New York Times recounted the tearful hug one girl gave the U.S. Supreme Court justice, who, the reporter wrote, represents “a generation of accomplished Latino and black professionals and public servants who went from humble roots to successful careers thanks to Catholic schools.”

Advocates of Catholic education don’t quibble with that assessment of the service to the poor the Church has long provided through its schools. But for them the Times’ web headline, “A Lifeline for Minorities, Catholic Schools Retrench,” shorthanded an all-too-familiar narrative of inevitable demise: Schools closing by the dozens, especially in poorer, urban areas, while bishops, superintendents, principals, teachers, parents and children watch helplessly, their hands tied by grim financial reality.

Undeniably, Catholic schools are closing — and fast — according to the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA). Since their peak 50 years ago when more than 5.2 million children attended nearly 13,000 U.S. Catholic grade and high schools, enrollment has dropped to a hair over 2 million while the number of schools has nearly halved.

Catholic bishops once viewed schools as “avenues of assimilation” for ethnically defined congregations and in 1884 set a never-achieved goal of building one in every parish. But by the 1960s, Catholics were established within America’s political and economic mainstream. Some, mainly those Catholics who understood the value of daily religious education in passing on the faith, became protagonists in a leitmotif of suburban school openings. The prevailing storyline, though, swept along by declines in the religious orders that had long staffed the schools at low cost, questions whether Catholic schools have any future at all.

Few dispute the civic benefits of healthy Catholic schools. Even in their diminished condition, parish schools educate at about half the $10,650 per-pupil cost of public schools, translating into “approximately 21 billion dollars a year [in] savings for the nation,” the NCEA estimates.

Researchers have also found that Hispanic and African American students in Catholic schools are likelier to graduate from high school and college than their public-school peers. And, regardless of their socioeconomic status, Catholic school graduates are likelier to vote, earn higher wages, volunteer and tolerate diverse points of view.

The trouble with the news media’s narrative, advocates say, is that it implies the role Catholic schools play in the life of people like Sonia Sotomayor is a thing of the past, when they believe the best is yet to come. Those mostly Hispanic 5-year-olds at Saint John, Santa Cruz and Saint Ambrose, the inaugural ACE Academies in Tucson, are helping write this new story. “Despite constraints, the Catholic school community is filled with zeal, not cynicism,” Rachel Moreno wrote the Times’ editor in June.

Professor Moreno’s zeal runs bone-deep. After 14 years on the ACE faculty, traveling to help teachers-in-training sharpen their skills, the 1990 finalist for National Teacher of the Year is staying closer to home. Now the Tucson native will teach current and prospective ACE Academy parents how to nurture their children’s talents toward a better future.

In the beginning

“This all started as kind of a lark,” Bishop Kicanas says of the day he called Father Timothy Scully, CSC, ’76, ’79M.Div. with no more of a plan than to cry “Help!” and see what thoughts the ACE founder might have about schools in his diocese “that were really on the brink.”

ACE is well-known in Tucson. Nearly every unit in its rapidly expanding portfolio of training programs and services has operated here at some time since 2001. Most familiar are the young volunteers in ACE’s Service Through Teaching program, who live in community and teach in “under-resourced” Catholic schools for two years while earning education degrees. The schools Kicanas and superintendent Sister Rosa Maria Ruiz, CFMM, chose to become ACE Academies were three of the schools where ACE teachers have been a presence on the faculty.

Calling Scully was Ruiz’s idea. The reply was a pleasant shock: ACE was seeking to partner with a diocese and a cluster of existing schools, not simply to keep them open but to build them into powerhouses of community transformation. They were looking for states with strong parental choice laws and a bishop willing to try a new model of school governance. Tucson was on the list, and ACE was just about to make the call when Bishop Kicanas beat them to it.

So, did that sound like the kind of thing the bishop had in mind?

ACE had just finished partnerships with stand-alone parish schools in separate cities. Those partnerships tried to provide the Church with what ACE Academies director Christian Dallavis ’97, ’99M.Ed. calls “more comprehensive support” than the training of teachers and principals, ACE’s bread and butter.

Dallavis, an ACE graduate, returned in 2008 to study what had and had not worked with those schools. His team learned two key lessons.

The first, Dallavis says, is “School leadership is everything. . . . If you don’t have a strong principal, you can spend all the money in the world and send all the instructional coaches in the world into the school, and you won’t see much traction.” Strong principals set expectations and hold teachers accountable for student achievement, he explains.

So the first curve Dallavis threw at Kicanas was a governance model that would ensure principals were on board the proverbial school bus. The pastor of each parish would have to cede control — primarily the power to hire and fire principals — to a single ACE Academies board on which he would serve with other representatives from Notre Dame, the diocese and each parish.

The principals would implement other changes: new math and reading curricula, rigorous professional development for teachers and a data-driven approach to measuring progress. The schools would work together to raise money and boost enrollment. And a comprehensive school culture tailored to each school’s needs would reinforce high expectations for everyone. Posters at Saint John’s, for instance, articulate the school’s root beliefs with the acronym THUNDER: The small things matter; Hard work pays off; UNited in Christ; Doers of the Word; Every minute counts; and Ready now.

The second lesson, Dallavis says, concerned finance. Tuition payments and fundraisers rarely do more than help schools scrape by. This leaves publicly funded scholarships, using vehicles such as school vouchers and tax credits.

“We believe strongly that every parent should have the right to choose the best school for their kid,” Dallavis says. “The bishops have fought for that since 1840.” Those parental choice laws, he adds, create “a path for sustaining [Catholic] schools’ legacy of high-quality education for low-income kids.”

Arizona is one of 18 states to have some form of parental choice provision, says John Schoenig ’98, ’00M.Ed., ’10J.D., the director of ACE’s Program for K-12 Educational Access. Pioneered by Wisconsin and Ohio in the 1990s, voucher laws meet particular resistance from public school advocates, who argue the programs drain revenues from systems with high fixed costs while providing a purely sectarian benefit at taxpayers’ expense. But in 2002 the Supreme Court upheld the Ohio program, opening the door to the steady adoption of parental choice programs in legislatures across the country.

Although Arizona offers vouchers, its tax credit program is more robust. That program, says Kicanas, directs millions of dollars to diocesan schools every year. Families may donate up to $1,000 to a state-approved “school tuition organization” and receive an equivalent reduction of their state income tax liability. The tuition organization then issues scholarships in the same amount to children from participating families.

Incorporated businesses in Arizona may eliminate their entire tax bill through similar donations. The Academies are trying to bring this bonus to the attention of qualified business owners in the state and contacts they’re making nationwide through the Notre Dame network.

Still, gaps remain between the money that’s available, the empty chairs in the schools and the families who say they want Catholic education but aren’t coming. Tucson isn’t unique. Juan Carlos Guzman, formerly the director of research at Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, found 400,000 vacant seats in Catholic schools nationwide in 2012. Schoenig says 35 percent of those are in parental choice states.

“We have what we’ve been fighting for, for so long,” Schoenig says. If ACE Academies can convince families that they can use these scholarships, send their kids and fill those seats, he says, the schools may thrive and encourage other states and other dioceses to follow the model. “It’s the most exciting and tangible proof-point that we could have . . . for the proposition that the best Catholic schools in a given city can be serving the most at-risk children.”

College and heaven

A few miles from Saint John’s, children gather in the courtyard of Santa Cruz School, where they can see mountains through every break in the whitewashed rooflines of the mission-style buildings. Tucson’s homeless once used the iron gateways for overnight shelter. Today the environment is safer and cleaner.

The students march from morning assembly down halls draped with college pennants. Crucifixes and images of Our Lady of Guadalupe adorn the walls, and when the kids pass the board labeled “Class of 2026” outside Ruby Amezquita’s room, they see headshots of her third graders in graduation caps, the photos clustered in work groups labeled with the names of universities. A photo of Amezquita ’12 shows her beaming beneath her Notre Dame mortarboard. She addresses her pupils as “scholars.”

At Saint Ambrose, Angelina Schmidt paces her kindergartners through their plurals. The example on her whiteboard is “baby,” and Schmidt, who will soon become the new teaching and learning specialist for all three Tucson ACE Academies, reminds them of their options: -s, -es and -ies. The children sit cross-legged on the floor, whiteboards in their laps, each writing their answer and holding it aloft for Schmidt’s thumbs-up. She waits for every child to respond, then writes the correct answer on her board. The children erupt in a collective “YAY!” and Schmidt prompts a few to rewrite correct answers.

Principal Emma Chavez notes that this class was starting preschool when she arrived at Saint Ambrose two years ago, leaving her post as assistant principal at a top Catholic school in suburban Tucson. Her goal is to see them through the eighth grade.


ND Magazine ACE Slideshow – Images by Notre Dame Photography

When she came, she says, she found a school with no Catholic identity and a faculty in mutiny against the Notre Dame plan. It was a year of tough conversations and departures.

Change was difficult at all three schools. Partnering with ACE meant instant access to a wealth of teacher tools and advice on needs assessments, business operations and community outreach. It also meant working harder than ever to adapt to the constant testing that would gauge student progress.

The ACE newcomers had to sharpen their listening skills and build trust. “Notre Dame had a lot to learn about the culture,” recalls Sister Ruiz, the diocesan superintendent. It wasn’t just a matter of language or religious customs, but the feeling among veterans at each school that the outsiders couldn’t know their students and their families like they did.

Teachers at Saint John’s felt no less a sense of ownership than those at Saint Ambrose but more readily bought into the plan. Daniel Aguilar Ortiz, the middle school math and religion teacher, describes a framed photo in Saint John’s that shows his father-in-law laying bricks to build the place back in the 1950s. Now, he says, “I’m feeling like I’m adding my own little brick, you know what I mean?”

Leaps of faith

As classes hum along behind Saint John’s blue doors, a pigeon alights into a dripping courtyard water fountain for a drink and a bath. Principal Roche has tried for weeks to get a Saint John’s parent, a plumber, to volunteer to fix it. Sometimes, that’s what leadership means.

Roche, an ACE veteran, isn’t from Tucson. When he taught in Mobile, Alabama, he responded to kidding about his accent with a joke of his own. “I’m from the real South,” the Australian would say. “The Southern Hemisphere.”

For Roche, 31, and his wife, Janele, heading west on I-10 from Mobile to Tucson so Keiran could teach middle school at Santa Cruz as the ACE Academies experiment began in 2010 was a leap of faith. So was the Academies’ offer last year to become Saint John’s principal on the strength of eight years’ teaching experience and his leadership skills. He had enrolled in ACE’s Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program, which trains Catholic school principals, but hadn’t started classes yet. And the Roches were expecting a baby.

Now the leaps involve recruiting families who cannot pay full tuition when he cannot cover their costs. Scholarships and philanthropy will have to fill that gap and help Saint John’s grow toward sustainability. Plaques in the offices of each ACE Academy bear the familiar logos of such early corporate supporters as AT&T, New York Life, Target and Kiewit.

Roche wants to expand enrollment and get every child reading above grade level. He knows ACE has his back. He’s toured high-performing schools that once struggled like Saint John’s has, and he dreams of giving that same kind of tour himself. “We have to be the best Catholic school in the city,” he says with Down Under bravado. “In the U.S. In the world. Why not?”

The path forward

At the moment, the schools must recruit families. There’s no proven method, but you need people who understand the community and are comfortable enough in the separate worlds of parents and school administrators to walk the neighborhoods, meet families, build rapport and fill out paperwork.

Rachel Moreno, that former Arizona teacher of the year, fits the description. Her new job as the Tucson ACE Academies’ advancement director supports the nascent recruitment efforts at the three schools.

Moreno says families here simply don’t know about scholarships or how to use the tax credit. She wants to teach them. “I guess I’m just tired of your zip code determining what school you’re going to go to. I’m appalled that the [public] school five minutes south of here is a failing school. And who’s being failed? My brothers and sisters,” she says. “Those are all Latinos who are getting shortchanged educationally.”

Moreno’s story may inspire these families. She made her first communion at Saint Ambrose, taught religion at Santa Cruz and got married at Saint John’s. Like many local children, she was raised by her grandparents. She shared a bedroom with two aunts. Her family didn’t know she needed space to do homework, and she says she often had to wait until 10 o’clock at night to get started. But she worked hard and earned scholarships to three universities. She chose the University of Arizona because it was in Tucson and her grandfather forbade her to leave unless she was married.

Moreno learned her way around the American education system, hard-earned training that will benefit Tucson families. “And who would have thought that I’d have become a professor at Notre Dame or earned a Ph.D?” she asks. “I was just a girl from the barrio.”

Hard work pays off

Education reformers have a saying: There’s no single approach to educating children, but there may be a hundred 1-percent solutions.

Last year, the ACE Academies experiment expanded to two schools in the Diocese of St. Petersburg. Plans call for a launch in another diocese by 2014. The growth begat growing pains for the schools in Tucson — mainly concerns from some teachers that they were getting less attention from Notre Dame — but the Academies’ Tucson support staff is now at full strength.

“Our goal is to provide a Catholic education of the highest quality to as many children as possible,” says director Dallavis. “So if we fill up the schools in Tucson, we’d like to build an addition, or reopen a closed building, or start a new school, and just keep growing.”

In three years, Saint John’s has nearly doubled its enrollment, a small start considering the big picture of U.S. Catholic education and the fact that Catholic schools educate only a fraction of American children. But it may be enough to contest that decline-and-fall story in the news.

Fans whir noisily in Lourdes Leon’s fifth-grade classroom as a family arrives after school and Leon administers placement tests to a boy and a girl. Their parents browse the posters on the walls, pausing over the ACE Academy banner that reads: Seek. Persist. Excel. Love. Serve.

Leon was a student here and joined the faculty in 1995. She’s seen the darkest hours, when enrollment dropped below 100 students and she taught second and third grade in the same room. She later served as principal and poured herself into organization, but after five years she burned out and returned to the classroom.

If anyone could say she’s seen it all before, it’s Leon. Instead, she takes a hopeful view.

“We were a little scared,” she recalls, thinking back to the bishop’s announcement that Notre Dame was coming and the humbling focus on professional development that first year. “And I just remember us getting a new outlook, trying to see past all of the negative parts of ourselves, of our school, and really searching deep within. . . . Like, do we really believe in Catholic schools?”

Leon says Saint John’s was a sinking ship long before Notre Dame arrived. She remembers diocesan meetings where mention of Saint John’s produced a murmur.

“How do you not take that personally, you know?” But that’s changed, she says. “Matter of fact, we’re the ship that’s totally sailing, and now there’s others that are following.

“I feel like we are in the resurrection days.”


John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.


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