When Desmond Shannon was a student at the Gesu School in North Philadelphia, he thought students at that private Catholic elementary school had more homework than their teachers.
Thanks to a new, local program that trains young college graduates to teach at inner-city Catholic schools, Shannon, 22, now knows better.
"I see the other side," said Shannon, who teaches 25 sixth graders at St. Rose of Lima Catholic elementary school in West Philadelphia and spends evenings grading their assignments and writing lesson plans. "Teachers have more homework than students."
After majoring in actuarial science at St. Joseph's University, Shannon expected to be crunching numbers for an insurance company. Instead, he joined 14 other 2010 college grads who signed up to teach at nine Catholic schools in Philadelphia through the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) at St. Joseph's.
St. Joseph's launched its version of the University of Notre Dame's successful ACE program in the summer with nearly $1 million in contributions from foundations and donors and support from the University of Pennsylvania.
Notre Dame's program, which was created in 1993-94, aims to provide a cadre of dedicated and academically accomplished young educators for Catholic schools just as Teach for America (TFA) trains teachers for public schools nationwide.
As is the case with Teach for America, ACE recruits high-achieving grads who did not major in education, trains them in summer, provides professional support, and sends them to graduate school so they have master's degrees in education at the end of their two years.
The tight economy and uncertain job prospects for 2010 grads helped St. Joe's fledgling program fill its openings with alums from across the country like Meghan Bliss, who received an undergraduate degree in American studies from Notre Dame.
Although Bliss always had wanted to be a teacher, she said she was really interested in earning her bachelor's degree from Notre Dame's respected program in American studies. The Missouri native applied to ACE in Philadelphia after being put on ACE's waiting list at Notre Dame.
"The Catholic education and community aspects of this program in particular were appealing to me," said Bliss, 22, who teaches third grade at St. Rose of Lima.
"Work needs to be done to improve urban education," she added. "I'm happy to be part of something that can fill that need."
All the fellows have pledged to serve two years and are working toward their master's degrees from St. Joseph's and state teaching certification. They also will receive leadership certificates from Penn's Robert A. Fox Leadership Program.
In contrast to TFA fellows who are paid the beginning-teacher rate of $44,039, ACE participants receive monthly stipends of about $1,000 for food and expenses. They live together at no cost in a former convent.
With Notre Dame focused on providing teachers for needy Catholic schools in the South and West, other Catholic universities have developed ACE programs in other parts of the country.
All stress the same three "pillars": teaching, community life, and spirituality.
"You don't have to be Catholic to do ACE, but there is an emphasis on spiritual growth," said John Staud, an administrator with Notre Dame's program, which has produced more than 1,200 Catholic educators.
"We feel it's an injection of talent and passion into a Catholic school system that is increasingly fragile in the inner cities," Staud said. "We're going to attract people interested in service and maybe the profession."
St. Joseph's is the 16th ACE program in the nation. It's the first in Pennsylvania and among those most closely modeled after Notre Dame, according to the Rev. Daniel R.J. Joyce, a St. Joe's administrator who helped developed it.
"We looked at these programs and thought, 'That's a contribution we could make,' " said Joyce, noting his university trains teachers through its education department. "And it's . . . an important piece of the puzzle for Catholic schools in the city."
Years ago, he said, a lot of young people entered Catholic schools as teachers.
"But they were nuns, priests, and brothers," said Joyce, a Jesuit priest who is assistant to the vice president for mission and identity. "I think Notre Dame has caught onto something: This is the new way that can happen."
The program is already planning a second cadre for 2012.
Because ACE absorbs the cost of the new teachers, the nine cash-strapped schools are saving a total of more than $1 million on salaries and benefits over two years, while the schools work on long-range financial plans, said Mike O'Neill, chairman of Business Leadership Organized for Catholic Schools (BLOCS).
"And the energy and enthusiasm they bring to these schools is a shot in the arm," said O'Neill, whose nonprofit organization raises scholarship money for Catholic schools and has contributed $100,000 to ACE. O'Neill also helped found Philadelphia School Partnership, which is hoping to raise $100 million in private funds to support public, private, and charter schools in the city.
Even though Shannon is a math whiz, he expected one day to land in a classroom.
"I knew I eventually wanted to teach," said Shannon, who in high school and college tutored Gesu students in math.
On this day, however, the subject was writing. "What would you do to make somebody happy who was sad? How would you turn someone's sadness into joy?" Shannon asked the students. "Write about it."
The boys in blue shirts and girls in blue plaid jumpers grabbed their pencils, furrowed their brows, and got to work. After a few minutes, Shannon asked what they had written.
The suggestions were varied and creative.
"I would take them to the park to try to keep their minds off what was making them sad," said one girl.
"I'd watch a funny movie with them," a boy offered.
Shannon knew he'd be taking all 25 writing exercises home that night to grade, but added: "It's still fun. I like it."