ACE teachers cycle across America

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.

If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s harder to bike up the Rocky Mountains after battling the flu or to teach high schoolers for a day, you might ask Tony Hollowell ’04, ’06M.Ed.

“Oh, teaching, any day,” says a laughing Hollowell while standing in a steady rain at the foot of the Main Building’s front steps. “Absolutely. I feel much more tired after a day of teaching than I do after riding a bike.”

This after cycling in 70 miles the day before from the Chicago area. Then there was the day in June when Hollowell and his companions from the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program—non-cyclists, every one of them—pedaled through 91 miles of saguaro and Arizona heat, climbing 2,500 feet before reaching their destination. In fact, you could take any single day of the newly minted teachers’ 3,600-mile, Los Angeles-to-New York journey and their day job still tops it.

Talk to any of the hundreds of ACE students and graduates about their experiences in some of the nation’s least privileged Catholic schools and they’ll tell you the rewards are bigger, too.

The eight cyclists of the ACE American Fellowship Tour rode up Notre Dame Avenue to the elated applause of their colleagues in mid-July, just in time for them to attend the annual ACE retreat and the commencement ceremony, where each received a master’s of education degree. After a year of planning the trip and securing financial support, the cyclists had dipped their back tires in the Pacific Ocean on June 4, celebrated a tour kickoff Mass in L.A. and stopped at dozens of parishes and schools along the way.

The goals of the cyclists, who are among the 88 that recently completed the teaching program, were to learn more about the state of Catholic education across the country, to let people know about ACE, to rekindle hope wherever it was needed and to raise money for some of the neediest schools in which they had learned to teach.

They kept in touch with friends in the program through email, cell phones and a fellowship tour website, The site includes riders’ biographies, a map and detailed itinerary of the journey, a wittily kept blog, and information on how to support Catholic schools.

“They’ve touched a lot of people,” says Colleen Garvey ’01, ’03M.Ed., a former ACE associate director who returned to teaching this fall. Their basic message was, “this is the vibrance of the Catholic Church and young people. We’re excited about it, you could be too.”

During the two challenging years when they learn their trade hands-on, ACE teachers face a variety of problems. Some are truly unexpected. Hollowell, for instance, was starting his second year at Resurrection Catholic Middle/High School in the coastal Mississippi town of Pascagoula when Hurricane Katrina hit.

“We had about three feet of water throughout the whole school. Everything was wiped out, and we had to start brand new,” he recalls. The diocese funded the clean-up, but the school itself, like so many in the Gulf Coast states, was on its own when it came to lockers, desks, books and other essentials.

“Things started up pretty slowly, but it was like every day was Christmas,” he says. “You’d get some books for a math class here, some calculators there. We’re slowly still piecing it together.”

Needs aren’t new to schools like Resurrection; the storm simply made things tougher. ACE exists as an effort to meet those needs. Garvey says that while this was the first time ACE teachers had biked cross-country to raise awareness and money, as many as 25 will run a marathon together for the same purposes every year.

At the July 15 commencement, keynote speaker Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Secretary of Education, praised the aspirations and accomplishments of Catholic education and the ACE graduates.

“You didn’t take this job for fame or fortune, you took it for the love of kids. And your love is making a difference,” Spellings said. “I know why you do it, because I see the same thing you do . . . you see kids that inspire you, they look up to you, they thank you and they love to learn because of you.”

America’s Catholic schools “are truly national treasures” and programs like ACE are likely to keep it that way, she said, noting the class’s 100 percent completion rate, an ACE first.

In his talk at commencement, Hollowell expressed relief that neither he nor any of his classmates had the job of teaching the daughters of the secretary of education. “That’s one tough parent-teacher conference,” he said.