Catholic school in Pilsen benefits from Notre Dame partnership

When Heidi DeVooght began her teaching career six years ago at St. Ann Catholic School in Pilsen, the school struggled with finances and couldn't hold onto good teachers.

Problems were so serious that DeVooght says she feared St. Ann would join the growing list of Catholic schools forced to shut their doors.

But about two years ago, her perception of the 106-year-old school's future changed.

That's when St. Ann became one of three schools across the country selected for a University of Notre Dame program designed to help urban inner city schools survive.

"Before I felt like we were on an island, but now we have a lot of new ideas that we never had before,”  says DeVooght, a fifth grade teacher at the school.

St. Ann serves 220 students in preschool through eighth grade.

Under the Notre Dame program, the schools and the university will collaborate for five years. Notre Dame provides financial and academic support.

St. Ann was eligible because principal Benny Morten received a master's degree from Notre Dame's education program. Demographics and financial need were also considered, Morten says.

In the first two years, St. Ann received about $30,000 worth of instructional material, including new reading books, from Notre Dame, Morten says.

Notre Dame has been able to tap into its alumni base in order to make Christmas appeals that raise money for the schools, says Melissa Green, communications coordinator for University of Notre Dame's Institute for Educational Initiatives.

Notre Dame recently raised about $130,000, which will be split among the three schools, she says.

"For most schools the problem is financial," Green says. "Parishes can’t subsidize the school [and pay] for the best teaching practices, programs, and professional resources."

For Maria Arciniega, a St. Ann parent, the new reading materials helped her daughter read more.

"Reading is important in this house, but if I suggest something, she thinks it's too old for her," says Arciniega of her daughter, Victoria, 14. "But if the school suggests it, she seems more inclined to read it. It gave her a wider variety of books to consider."

Notre Dame also provides a teaching coach who works 20 hours a week at St. Ann.

The coach observes teachers as they work with students, offering suggestions on how to improve teaching methods, says Assistant Principal Frankie Beecroft. The coach observed her when she taught second grade last year.

"The first time she evaluated me it was all positive feedback," Beecroft says. "Then came the  constructive criticism. She’d say, 'This is good, but have you thought about this.'"

The program also offers informational resources, Beecroft says.

When she needed to write grant proposal - something she'd little experience with  - she called Notre Dame faculty who had extensive knowledge in that area, she says.

Just knowing the school has someone to call for help motivates her and other teachers at St. Ann, she says.

"So many of us sacrifice at a Catholic school," Beecroft says. "We have less resources and less pay."

Teachers, parents and Notre Dame faculty are also meeting this semester to hammer out a strategic plan designed to guide St. Ann toward further growth and stability.

Based on the success at St. Ann and the two other select schools, Notre Dame hopes to forge relationships with other inner-city Catholic schools around the country. 

"The point is to replicate it elsewhere," Morten says. "And believe me, it has made a big difference for St. Ann."