Top Grads Could Have It All, Get Lesson in Life Instead

by By Meg McSherry Breslin

The 1999 valedictorian of her class at theUniversity of Notre Dame, Jennifer Ehren had her pick of plum jobs. Among other options, the chemical engineering major could have made a $50,000 starting salary for a major pharmaceutical firm.p. Instead, the Barrington High School graduate took a minimum-wage job teaching science and math at a Catholic high school far from home, on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.p. Like scores of other Notre Dame graduates who might never have otherwise considered teaching, Ehren was drawn to the university’s increasingly popular Alliance for Catholic Education program.p. The ACE program is a kind of Peace Corps for the nation’s Catholic schools, a system in crisis because of teacher shortages and financial woes. An effort with modest initial goals when it was launched six years ago, ACE has succeeded beyond expectations by appealing to students intrigued by doing “volunteer” work before taking a permanent job.p. Today, 8 percent of Notre Dame’s senior class applies to ACE; only one in three is accepted. The program has attracted many top students who now are mulling over education as a lifelong career.p. What Ehren and many other participants didn’t realize at first was that a program designed to help the schools would have such a deep and lasting impact on their own lives.p. “I never thought I’d be challenged so much,” Ehren said of her first year of teaching. The experience, she said, has changed her. “Service will be a part of my life no matter what,” she said.p. Even the program’s founder, Rev. Timothy Scully, executive vice president at Notre Dame, has been surprised by the widespread response to his idea.p. Initially, he figured a small but passionate group of students could be lured into a tuition-free master’s degree program in education involving a two-year teaching commitment in needy Catholic schools. The living stipend would be $1,000 per month.p. The program now boasts 300 alums and 150 current participants. Applicants have included some of the school’s best and brightest students.p. Eighty-three percent of last year’s ACE graduating class stayed in education, either by remaining as teachers or by pursuing further education to become school administrators or professors.p. “I figured if we could get 10 or 20 percent [to remain teachers], I’d be thrilled,” Scully said. “I didn’t expect these young people to stay.”p. The success of Notre Dame’s program has also inspired interest from Catholic universities across the U.S., eight of which are creating similar programs based on the Notre Dame model.p. Many teachers on the front lines of ACE say working in underserved Catholic schools can be a wrenching and emotional experience, no matter how bright or enthusiastic they are about the program’s goals.p. Ehren found that out the hard way. From the moment she arrived, she felt the entire school was whispering about how smart she was, that she would never be able to relate to her students.p. But Ehren plunged in. In all three of her classes—chemistry, physics and advanced math—she hit students like a bomb from the first day, pounding them with questions, demanding them to think through their answers.p. The students, and their parents, quickly rebelled. Students said she pushed too hard, that her expectations were way above their level. Ehren kept pushing.p. “I tried to keep showing them that the only thing I have up on them is determination and a passion for learning,” she said. “They think I’m this big brain, but I just want them to try.”p. Ehren, 23, grew up fast in the face of all that resistance. She learned she wasn’t willing to back down, and she worked to convince the students and parents that she had their best interests in mind. But she felt incredibly alone.p. “In October of last year, I felt like such a failure,” she said. “I just had too much on my plate. I was trying to do everything perfectly, and it was really hard to balance everything.”p. Even though Ehren expects to stop teaching high school, she’s still interested in pursuing a doctorate and possibly teaching at the college level.p. Her principal, Sister Jacqueline Howard, feels lucky to have her, even for a short time. Over the past several years, she’s had 13 ACE teachers. “First of all, these ACErs change us,” she said. “Those of us who’ve been in education a long time can get very satisfied with the status quo. They come in asking, `How come you do it this way?’ And they have truly tried to take our kids and their education and really challenge these kids to reach a different level.”p. While Notre Dame concentrates on recruiting its own undergraduates and students at a smattering of other Catholic schools, professionals have also applied.p. Among them was Dave Wartowski, who was making more than $50,000 as a health care consultant at Ernst&Young, a professional services firm in Chicago.p. Despite his comfortable life on Chicago’s North Side, Wartowski said a couple years of service work had allure.p. After a summer of training, Wartowski began teaching at St. Cecilia’s High School inthe heart of the South Central community of Los Angeles this fall. Among his students are children whose mothers are drug addicts and alcoholics and students with learning problems who struggle to get through the most basic lessons.p. “I thought it would be a nice way to help the world,” Wartowski said of teaching. “Never did it occur to me how hard it was going to be.”p. That’s a reality that surprises him because his own mother was a teacher, and he never considered her work especially challenging. As a child, he was a top student—and thus figured a teaching career wasn’t right for him.p. “I guess I thought teaching might be too easy for me,” he said. “Now I realize how wrong I was.”p. Wartowski is now talking about a career change. He now believes no profession is nobler nor more important than teaching.p. Like Wartowski, Katie Baal was surrounded by relatives who were teachers while she grew up on Chicago’s Southwest Side. She never figured she would follow in their footsteps.p. She applied to ACE in her senior year at Notre Dame because it was a chance to do service work before applying to medical school. But after two years teaching at a Catholic high school in Baton Rouge, La., she was hooked.p. Now Baal teaches math and science at her alma mater, St. Ignatius College Prep on Chicago’s Near West Side.p. While the pay at St. Ignatius is higher than at many Catholic high schools, Baal still struggles with a salary in the mid-$30,000 range. It’s hard on her, she says, to meet people with similar backgrounds who make almost double the money at public schools.p. For a while, she took a second job at Crate and Barrel and later moved in with her parents to make ends meet. But she’s still committed to Catholic schools.p. “ACE has made a lot of people believers in Catholic education,” she said. “There really is something unique about this. It’s a way of giving back what I was given, and it really develops that spiritual side again.”p. For some ACE participants like Sean McGraw, the transformation has been especially dramatic.p. Scully, the program’s founder, had taught McGraw at Notre Dame, and the two kept in touch after McGraw went to the London School of Economics for his master’s degree in European politics in 1992.p. He returned to Notre Dame after his year in London and was considering work on a doctorate in political science. But first he was persuaded to help Scully get ACE off the ground. For several months, he toured the country with Scully, stopping in small Southern towns to talk to superintendents about their desperate need for energetic new teachers.p. Prior to that time, McGraw had never thought about the priesthood, or even teaching at the elementary level. He dated regularly, had an active social life and expected to marry and start a family.p. But after serving as director of ACE in its beginning years, his perspective started to change.p. “I was working with Father Scully and a few others, both priests and laypeople, and the more I hung around, especially the priests, the more I liked what I saw,” McGraw said. “They were faith-filled people, very educated, hard working and full of life. They were living out their faith in ways I thought were really exciting.”p. Now a deacon working toward his ordination in April, McGraw is teaching social studies to freshmen at Notre Dame High School in Niles. The person who succeeded him as ACE’s director has also decided to become a priest.p. Sunday, November 26, 2000

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