The prevalence of the aphorism “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” has declined in recent years, as education has taken center stage in politics. Yet, there are still those who overlook the vital role of teachers in society. The role of education today is even more important than in past generations, as the degeneration of the nuclear family and shifting cultural mores greatly impact children in their most formative years. Schools, specifically those strongly rooted in the Catholic tradition, have the ability to provide the values lacking in a culture that no longer evangelizes.

Pope Francis, in his recent address to the Notre Dame Board of Trustees and other leaders, stated, “I express my gratitude for the commitment which the University of Notre Dame has shown over the years to supporting and strengthening Catholic elementary and secondary school education throughout the United States.”

The University of Notre Dame has a particular mission in the future of Catholic education, and through the Echo and Alliance for Catholic Education programs (ACE), it is affecting great positive change.


What are Echo and ACE?

Echo and ACE are Notre Dame’s primary vehicles for the advancement of Catholic education both in the United States and throughout the world. Program graduates of Echo, which is integrated into the Institute for Church Life, go on to serve the Church not only as teachers but also as leaders in Church ministry. ACE is a separate entity housed in the Institute for Educational Initiatives, and it focuses primarily on the training of teachers and formation of school leaders. Both programs culminate in a masters degree and require summer training programs during which participants live, learn and pray in community here at Notre Dame’s campus.


The Echo program

Echo’s mission as articulated on its website is to “form leaders and serve the church, fostering development of individuals as people of faith and lay ecclesial ministers.” Participants, called apprentice catechetical leaders, earn a tuition-free masters degree (MA) in theology upon graduating from the two-year program.

A fundamental facet of the program is the mentor-apprentice relationship, in which mentors are matched to one apprentice for the duration of their two-year immersion. Mentors are certified at a host diocese’s highest level and typically have three or more years of service in parish catechetical leadership. The evolving relationship between apprentices and mentor insures a basis for growth from a positive role model.

Though hailing from a variety of disciplines, apprentices typically have an undergraduate background in theology. While studying with Echo, they live in a community of faith in which meals, prayer, ministry and household responsibilities are celebrated together. A focus on community lends itself to the sharing of joys and challenges of everyday life and of a faith that both unites and sustains. Typical coursework includes biblical studies, the history of Christianity, liturgical studies, moral theology, systematic theology and catechesis. Additionally, the program promotes pastoral courses and community outreach through ministry to families and young adults.

Graduates work in parish ministry, youth ministry, diocesan leadership, multicultural parish ministry, adult faith formation or Catholic schools. Echo makes both regional and national professional development opportunities accessible. Many apprentices attend national conferences dedicated to pastoral and catechetical praxis, greatly enhancing their learning experience.

John C. Cavadini, Professor of Theology and Director of the Institute for Church Life, founded Echo in 2004. He cites his experience teaching introductory theology as the foundation for his interest in creating the program.

In an interview with the Rover, Cavadini said that he “came across a student who knew what ‘reincarnation’ meant, but had never heard of ‘Incarnation.’ I realized how shockingly little knowledge of the Catholic faith there is among our undergraduates, over 80% of whom are Catholic, and about 50% of those went to Catholic high schools and the others to parish catechetical programs. It seems like evidence of a great failure in the Church. Pope Benedict referred to this as an ‘educational emergency.’ I founded Echo to try to begin to remedy this emergency of ignorance.”

Cavadini has written extensively on the theology of the early church, established the Notre Dame Vision program for high school students, the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence Program and many others.

Echo is forming leaders who can train the trainers, who can organize catechetical education for front line catechists, so there is a ripple effect,” he explains. “The vast majority of Catholics do not go to Catholic schools, so it is absolutely crucial to the life of the Church that parish catechetical programs dramatically increase in quality. Echo is Notre Dame’s contribution to this effort.”

Cavadini commented that the Common Core legislation, an education initiative in the United States that details what K-12 students should know in English language arts and mathematics at the end of each grade, “will not affect Echo, as we are involved only in teaching Theology or Religion.” He favors “Catholic schools coming up with their own core, based in our own traditions of thinking about education…it would be based in a spirit that was more conducive to integrative thinking, and to spiritual values.”


The ACE program

ACE’s website communicates that it “responds to the needs of the Church’s educational mission through service to children in elementary and secondary schools and strives to sustain, strengthen and transform Catholic schools.” It is one of Notre Dame’s most far-reaching enterprises, involved in hundreds of schools, dozens of Catholic dioceses and several foreign countries. The White House has honored ACE and other universities have built upon its model to form the University Consortium for Catholic Education, an organization that created an innovative community of primarily Catholic universities committed to the service of children in PK-12 Catholic/parochial schools.

Reverend Thomas R. Scully, CSC, and Reverend Sean McGraw, CSC, co-founded ACE in 1993 with the hope of forming generations of committed, faith-filled Catholic school teachers. The four main branches of ACE are its Service Through Teaching Program, Remick Leadership Program, English as a Second Language Program and Teaching Exceptional Children Program. The Remick Leadership Program is the largest of its kind in the country, having produced over 230 educators who are leading in 41 states and 65 dioceses. Since its founding, ACE has revitalized underperforming Catholic schools with more than 1,200 teachers.

Like Echo, ACE is a two-year program featuring summer sessions grounded in teaching, community and spirituality. It integrates graduate-level coursework with an immersion teaching experience in an underperforming Catholic school. Graduates are eligible for state licensure after graduation and many continue to teach, while others seek positions in school administrations.

Father Lou DelFra, director of spiritual life for ACE, emphasized the influence of community on Catholic education. He told the Rover, “In all the Gospel accounts of the calling of the first disciples, Jesus calls these first disciples in pairs—community is part of discipleship from the start…our teachers are sent out on a difficult mission. It is not easy to be a first-year teacher, especially in an under-resourced school in an unfamiliar place. All the more important, then, that this ministry is undertaken with the support of others in community.”

Some Catholic schools in the ACE program have adopted the Common Core educational initiative. Father DelFra declined to comment on its recent implementation in ACE schools.


Graduates’ feedback

Scott Boyle, a first-year apprentice with Echo, commented to the Rover that he “was drawn by the prospect of getting to share my life” and “resound deeply” in the lives of others. He mentioned that “a lot of people ask me what ‘Echo’ means. And I tell them that it actually doesn’t stand for anything. Rather, it points us towards the Greek word for ‘catechesis’: kata-echein. Broken down, the word loosely means, ‘to resound deep within.’”

Boyle stated that “nothing is as pretty as it is presented in the classroom, but there is a certain beauty in working in the trenches. Working to build something that hasn’t been built or putting your efforts to help dream ideas that have not been dreamt is immensely satisfying for me.”

William Liedl, a second-year ACE teacher, stated that “my community in Tulsa this winter were like family to me. They were always there to listen to your struggles and to help you find your way.” On the annual December retreat when he was feeling overwhelmed, Liedl said, “I got to spend a lot of time in prayer and silent reflection as well as getting to see other ACE communities that I hadn’t seen since the summer. It put things in perspective and helped connect me with the very real support group that surrounded me.”

Liedl offered a unique perspective on the nature of the graduate classes offered in the summer.

He felt that “the online assignments were so out of touch with our present situations in the classroom…For me it was hard to give high priority to my graduate work while I was trying to live in community, working over 70 hours every week as a teacher, and expected to give to my school community in the form of coaching and after-school programs.” Yet, Liedl affirmed that “ACE is a fantastic program, the work that they do for under-resourced communities is fantastic and the people in the program get so invested in their school communities.”


Catholic education’s unique role

Father Joe Corpora, the director of ACE’s University-School Partnership, spoke to the incomparable value of a Catholic education in an interview with the Rover. Father Corpora’s particular initiative involves integrating more Latino children into Catholic schools, as 70 percent of Catholics under the age of 35 are Latino, while only 3 percent send their children to Catholic school. He recognizes the shifting foundation of the Church from its Eurocentric roots, and hopes to help a whole church adjust to a new culture.

Catholic schools help people become fully human, because once they know they are fully loved by God, they can’t escape that knowledge,” Fr. Corpora said. He believes that opening new Catholic schools, and keeping existing ones open, will keep parishes vibrant and ensure the future of the church.

Father Corpora declined to comment on ACE schools’ implementation of Common Core standards.

Catholic schools represent an amazing gift to both our Church and our country,” Fr. DelFra commented. “At their best, they form active members of our Church, and also active citizens of our society. They form students who both love God, and love their neighbor.”

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