Teach for Christ invites young adults to serve in Catholic schools

| August 25, 2017 | 1 Comment

Teach for Christ educators Cecilia Miller, left, of Holy Family in St. Louis Park and John Eilen of St. Agnes in St. Paul go over training material Aug. 16 for their upcoming work at St. Mark’s Catholic School in St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Eight young adults will embark on a new ministry this fall at four Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Teach for Christ, a volunteer ministry that launched this year, offers the services of trained young adults to tutor students, assist teachers, coach and serve in support roles for a school year. The missionaries — known as “educators” — will serve this year at Ascension School and St. John Paul II Catholic Preparatory School in Minneapolis, St. Mark’s Catholic School in St. Paul and Chesterton Academy in Edina, where the program is based.

The program aims to have a spiritual and educational impact on its schools and educators, said Richard Vigilante, 60, Teach for Christ’s board chairman.

Vigilante, who previously served on Chesterton Academy’s board of directors, has had the vision in mind for years. He sought input from leaders in Catholic education around the archdiocese as he discerned how to form a ministry that could serve Catholic schools.

“We designed the program based on what we were told,” said Vigilante, a parishioner of St. Anne in Hamel and Holy Name of Jesus in Medina. “I’m a great admirer of ACE and Teach for America, but what we were told was ‘serve.’”

Both the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education and New York-based nonprofit Teach for America train people to serve as classroom teachers, which can lead to long-term careers in education. Teach for Christ trains people to work in education, but its educators don’t lead classrooms. Instead, they work as tutors or in areas outside the classroom, such as marketing.

Vigilante said the ministry is for any young adult, whether or not he or she’s considering education as a career. Requirements include being a college graduate with strong academic achievement, experience serving young people and a committed faith life.

This year’s Teach for Christ educators are from Minnesota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Vigilante and the staff received around 300 applications the first year.

“It was very gratifying,” Vigilante said about the interest.

Lucas Berke, 26, applied after working as a mission staff member for two years with NET Ministries in West St. Paul. He’s considering a teaching career.

“I was looking for options, and this one kind of came up,” said Berke, who has a degree in biology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Fellow educator Betsy Peloquin also has education in mind after completing degrees in literature and education this year at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, Florida. A parishioner of St. Henry in Monticello, she returned to her home state for Teach for Christ.

“This year, I did not feel like I was ready for my own classroom,” Peloquin, 22, said. “I was really excited about this opportunity to be working in the classroom, working with students and working with professional teachers as well, so I can learn from them.”

Leaders from the schools who will host Teach for Christ educators look forward to the extra support. St. John Paul II Principal Edgar Alfonzo said it fills a “big need” at his school.

“Every year, we get five, six students with almost no English at all,” Alfonzo said. “One-on-one work with these teachers is going to really benefit them, because you can see that they progress faster when they receive adaptation, not only one-on-one but also in a small groups.”

Vigilante said he could see the program expanding beyond the four pilot schools to serve anywhere in the archdiocese and beyond. The Catholic Schools Center of Excellence assisted Teach for Christ in choosing schools “that already had a strong record in successfully using volunteers to enhance student achievement,” he said. Chesterton Academy was chosen because of the initial connections with Teach for Christ.

Living in community is also a central aspect for Teach for Christ educators, as they live in separate households in
St. Paul during their year of service. Men live with the Pro Ecclesia Sancta priests and brothers, who serve St. Mark, while the women live in a house leased by the ministry. Peloquin said the households have “a plan of life” that consist of community prayer, meals, service and mini retreats with Pro Ecclesia Sancta.

“Then we bring that out to the larger communities that we’re going to be a part of,” Berke said.

It ties into the Catholic witness they also hope to bring to their schools.

“If you are praying, and you have a personal relationship with Jesus, you can’t fail to witness him,” Berke said. “You’ll end up doing ministry whether you meant to or not.”

The households are also open to young and single Catholic teachers. Isabel Brown, a teacher at Chesterton Academy, serves as the house leader for the women.

Training began for the educators June 20 with a three-day silent retreat led by the Pro Ecclesia Sancta brothers. The order became involved through PES Father Adam Tokashiki’s connection to Chesterton Academy as the school’s chaplain.

Theresa Krueger, Chesterton Academy’s dean of women and a former headmaster and teacher in Arizona’s Great Hearts charter schools network, led the training. Educators worked with Holy Family Academy in St. Louis Park during its summer school program, offering individual tutoring for the students.

“It was just a shot in the arm. The students enjoyed having the one-on-one instruction and the youthful charisma of the TC people,” said Jim Grogan, Holy Family’s principal.

Educators haven’t worried about fundraising on top of training, since Teach for Christ doesn’t require it. Private donors fund the ministry, and the educators receive a small stipend for basic needs.

“We’re able to just say, ‘Here I am, put me to work,’” Peloquin said.

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