Program combines learning with spirituality

College of Notre Dame grad students work, hope to stay in Catholic schools

April 21, 2002|By Amy L. Miller | Amy L. Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Combining spiritual growth with academic accomplishment, a new program sponsored by the College of Notre Dame of Maryland and the Archdiocese of Baltimore is seeking to help ease teacher shortages in the area's Catholic institutions.

Operation TEACH (Teachers Enlisted to Advance Catholic Heritage) gives students free tuition while they pursue a master's degree in education at the Baltimore college. In exchange, the participants - who live in housing offered by area parishes - teach for two years in a local Catholic school while pursuing their degree.

"They can share the education they have already received while they share their faith and strengthen one another," said Sister M. Karen Kelly, director of Operation TEACH, which will start its second year in the fall.

Founded on the ideals of professional teaching, community and spirituality, the program is interviewing its second batch of students, all of whom will enter Notre Dame in the fall.

Though new to this area, the program is affiliated with the Alliance for Catholic Education, a similar educational program started at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana in 1998.

The Indiana model has spawned programs at nine other Catholic institutions around the country, serving such areas as New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

"When we learned of the success of their [Indiana's Notre Dame] program, we became interested in modeling such a program in our area," said Carol Goldbeck, assistant superintendent for secondary schools and liaison between the Baltimore Archdiocese's Division of Catholic Schools and the college.

Nationally, she said, there is a shortage of teachers for Catholic schools.

"We have learned from other programs like the ACE [Alliance for Catholic Education] program that approximately 80 percent of those students who enroll and remain in the program stay in Catholic education as teachers," she said. "One of our goals is to attract and retain very qualified people for our schools."

Pam Walters and Mary Sunderland are the program's two inaugural students, and both fit that profile, said Goldbeck.

"From the principals in the two schools where Pam and Mary have been placed, we've only heard extremely positive remarks," Goldbeck said. "They have been wonderful candidates, both enthusiastic and great with the students."

Living in a building that formerly housed nuns serving the Sacred Heart of Mary School in Dundalk, the two students study, socialize and grow spiritually surrounded by the remnants of what was once an active religious community. They agree that the austere surroundings are an easy trade-off for the opportunities they've received over the past school year.

"It's been great integrating so many different parts of my life," said Walters, 22, who teaches language arts and mathematics to 10 special education students in grades three through seven at Sacred Heart of Mary. "I'm involved in service, working with children and teaching as well."

A desire to serve the community - a quality that program organizers say is important in a Catholic educator - is one of the main reasons both women applied to the program.

"I knew I wanted to be involved with service," said Walters, who graduated last year from the College of Notre Dame with a degree in education. "This was just what I was looking for."

The program also allows her to afford a continued education at her alma mater.

Sunderland, 23, who graduated from Loyola College last year with a 3.9 grade point average in business, entered the program and became a second-grade teacher at St. James and St. John Catholic School in East Baltimore so that she could continue with her first love: working with children.

The pupils' "faces are so eager as they learn something new, from handwriting to math," said Sunderland, who had served as a tutor at Mother Seton School in Baltimore and in Thailand during her years as an undergraduate student. "Seeing such hope in the children each day as they learn to read provides me with hope for the future."

The ability to share their faith on a daily basis also has been an important aspect of the program for both women.

"It's nice to know that I can talk to the children about God and Jesus and what they are thankful for," said Sunderland, a native of Philadelphia. "I find it very supportive, with the other teachers, that we can depend on our spirituality."

The tight bonds forged by the programs such as Operation TEACH are likely among the reasons why 80 percent of participants remain in Catholic education, Goldbeck said.

"Catholic schools provide a very safe and nurturing environment for our kids and our faculty members," she said.

The current Operation TEACH participants agree, saying their experience has convinced them that Catholic education is where they belong.

For example, as a special education teacher, Walters initially thought that the public school system would give her a greater opportunity to work with students. But the freedom she's been given this year has persuaded her to remain.

"I devise our curriculum, I pick out our materials and purchase them," Walters said. "I know of no other first-year teacher who's been given complete control."

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