By Nancy Wiechec
Catholic News Service
TUCSON, Ariz. (CNS) — Kiana Romero waves a finished assignment in the air, beaming confidence as her teacher collects the papers.
On a classroom bulletin board hangs a blue and gold pennant that reads “Class of 2026.”
That is the year Kiana and her classmates at St. Ambrose Catholic School, a Notre Dame ACE Academy, are to enter college. The first-graders know that already.
From kindergarten on up, Notre Dame ACE Academy scholars are reminded every day that their goals are college and heaven. It is written on walls and posters, T-shirts, rulers and bulletin boards, and posted above classroom doors.
“College is our goal,” said Lexi Rodriquez, the student council president at St. Ambrose. “We want to excel to get through high school and get into a good college that leads you on to a great career path. And heaven is of course our ultimate goal because we want to be with Jesus.”
Rodriquez talks about St. Ambrose and her future plans with assurance and pride.
“We get a high-quality education in our academics and in our faith, which I think is a great thing because God is the center of your whole life,” she said. “It’s great to have goals because that’s something to work for… and when you get there you’ll feel that you’ve achieved something.”
St. Ambrose is one of three schools in the Diocese of Tucson and five in the nation that are pioneers of a new education model in which the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education, or ACE, partners with diocesan schools in low-income urban areas.
Literature for the program says it exists to “ensure Catholic schools in the United States not only survive, but thrive.”
“Above all else, the Notre Dame ACE academies provide a Catholic education of the highest quality to as many children as possible in under-served communities.”
Rodriquez, who has attended St. Ambrose since preschool, is at the top of her eighth-grade class. She has witnessed the transformation of St. Ambrose from foundering parish school to success story under the Notre Dame umbrella.
“It’s been a great time for St. Ambrose because we used to be just another Catholic school,” she told Catholic News Service. “I know that the ACE program has helped us.”
St. Ambrose, St. John the Evangelist and Santa Cruz schools in south Tucson were at the brink of closure in 2010 when Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas called on ACE for help. Enrollments were down, facilities in disrepair and deficits rising. One school could not attract a new principal and teachers were taking cuts in salaries to help it stay afloat.
The schools are located in mainly Latino neighborhoods, where the majority of households have annual incomes below $25,000. Nearly all students now qualify for tuition assistance as well as the federal free or discount lunch program.
“We were desperate, because we had three of our most under-resourced schools that were really struggling. We weren’t sure they were going to survive,” said Bishop Kicanas. “Since the partnership with the university, we’ve seen a stabilization of the finances, the schools are almost at capacity and the academic achievement of the children has moved forward significantly.”
In five years, these schools went from “sadness and doom” to models of “joy and hope,” he said.
The growth is evident in some statistics from St. John the Evangelist.
In 2010, St. John’s second-grade class was at the 17th percentile — below average — in math on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills. Their test scores in math in 2014 were at the 52nd percentile.
“We’re out to show that we can close the achievement gap in three years, from below average to above the (nationwide) average,” said principal Keiran Roche.
Additionally, he said kindergarten students at St. John are “among the best readers and mathematicians in the nation” with test scores at the 90th percentile.
He considers that an amazing feat for students from an urban neighborhood that is among the poorest in U.S.
Roche said he attributes the boost in academic performance to the ACE teaching model that insists on continuing training for teachers and relies on data-driven instruction, test scores and other markers that help teachers adjust and direct curriculums to meet achievement goals.
As for enrollment at St. John, that is up to 315 students — more than double the number in 2010.
Finances at the school are also in good shape. “The operating budget of the school in 2010 was $400,000 said Roche. “We’re now at $1.6 million.”
And what are parents paying for education at St. John?
“Everyone is on some type of scholarship,” Roche said. A family’s out-of-pocket expenses ranges between $600 and $1,500 per student, depending on need.
The three Tucson Catholic schools became the first ACE academies. Two others were later forged in Florida in Tampa and Pinellas Park.
By all accounts, making these schools viable again involved a triad of circumstances.
Notre Dame offered its resources, including a new Catholic school model and young, enthusiastic ACE-trained teachers and administrators and leadership development.
— The dioceses committed to changes in administration, allowing ACE involvement in financial management and marketing.
— State education-choice programs and scholarships allowed financially struggling parents to afford tuition thereby boosting enrollments.
In addition, Roche said expectations for students are high and they are challenged to seek, persist, excel, love and serve.
Bishop Kicanas admitted there were some initial challenges when Notre Dame came into the schools. Pastors and principals lost some of their autonomy. They became part of a larger organization that included a new board and new search committees.
“There have been a few rough spots, but mostly people have been trying their very best to make this work, and it’s working beautifully,” the bishop said.
According to the Notre Dame education alliance, the university has advanced more than $8.8 million in resources to the three Tucson schools and $3.3 million to the Florida schools. The support comes from grants and benefactors secured by Notre Dame.
ACE is seeking to expand its outreach to Catholic schools in states with parental school-choice options.
“We want our schools to be proof points that demonstrate that excellence is possible for Catholic schools under particular conditions — namely, a strong governance partnership and robust parental choice programs,” said Ricky Austin, a spokesman for the alliance. “We are currently engaged in conversations with several visionary archbishops and bishops, with entrepreneurial superintendents, who have invited us to explore a partnership.”
Bishop Kicanas said the collaboration between the Tucson Diocese and Notre Dame continues and is evolving.
“In the past this (partnership) has been totally underwritten by the university and the ACE program, but now each of the schools will be contributing to provide the necessary resources for curriculum development, for marketing and financial support,” he said. “We’re moving into a new phase.”