When the navy blue bus entered the lower schoolyard of Immaculate Conception School at exactly 10 a.m. on May 6, the students around the perimeter of the high chain-link fence started yelling and screaming almost as loudly as Immaculate Conception students did in 1987 when a helicopter landed and (recently canonized) St. John Paul II stepped out to greet them.  

The event celebrated the 20th anniversary of the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) two-year program, which provides right-out-of-college teachers in training to many Catholic schools, like Immaculate Conception, serving poor and working class minority urban families.

On its 43rd leg of a 50-city national tour to highlight the success of Catholic education, the theme was plainly spelled out in white letters on the sides of the bus: “Fighting for Our Children’s Future.” In four stages, the bus had been to New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., as well as New Orleans, through Oklahoma and Texas, and then onto Tucson, Orange County and Los Angeles, where ACE has supplied teachers to Catholic schools in the archdiocese for many years.

Currently, nine ACE teachers serve in local schools, including two at Immaculate Conception: Sarah Kennedy, who has sixth grade homeroom and teaches middle school science, and Ashley Armendariz, who teaches second grade.

“It means energy and commitment to the kids and passion for what they’re doing,” explained principal Mary Ann Murphy, who received an award for her years in Catholic education. “And also involvement in the parish; they’re bringing a different presence to the parish. And they’re very well prepared. The quality of their preparation is phenomenal. They come in having been in a very intensive summer preparation, and they’re earning a master’s degree in education, too.”

Father Timothy Scully cofounded ACE with inspiration from his spiritual advisor, Sister Lourdes Sheehan, who was directing the office of Catholic schools for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. The priest, who teaches political science at Notre Dame, confided to the nun that he didn’t become a Holy Cross priest to be a professor.

Sister Sheehan countered by asking Father Scully why — with sisters having less and less a presence, especially in urban Catholic schools — didn’t he try to fill that growing gap? After all, he had a ready supply of young talent at Notre Dame

So he took out a full-page ad in the university’s newspaper with the enticing words: “Tired of getting homework? Then give some! Become an ACE Teacher.” He thought there might be 20 to 30 responders, enough to start a small service project. Instead, well over 200 graduating seniors filled LaFortune Ballroom on campus.

To date, there have been more than 1,300 ACE teachers. Some 75 percent have continued after the program plying their craft in the education field, mostly in Catholic schools.

“I knew there was a supply, and I knew there was a demand from what Sister Lourdes told me,” Father Scully told The Tidings. “So that’s what started ACE in 1993. It was kind of my night job, with a half-time employee and $5,000. But today we have six Holy Cross priests in our movement. And now we have 110 people working fulltime on supporting and sustaining Catholic schools across the country. It’s wonderful.”

After a while, he added, “Imagine what our country would be like if we only had state-run schools. Where would be the pluralism? And I understand why public schools base all of their metrics on student achievement data. But we have two things we’re interested in.

“We’re interested in [getting students into] college, but we’re also interested in heaven. You know, we’re interested in a living encounter with the living person of Jesus Christ resurrected. And you can’t get that anywhere but here.”

As a graduate of St. Alphonsus School in East L.A. and member of the last class from all-girls’ Sacred Heart of Mary High School in June 1991, Sylvia Armas-Abad knows the value of a Catholic education — especially for Hispanics like herself. Today she’s turned that personal experience into being the field consultant in Los Angeles for ACE. She tries to get the dual message out that there are quality Catholic schools in many local Latino communities and that tuition is affordable with the help of the Catholic Education Foundation and other aid and scholarship programs.  

“A part of Catholic schools in America has always been to close the achievement gap for the most under-resourced, under-privileged children across the United States,” she said. “I mean, that really is our legacy in the Catholic school system — that we were always able to educate children of immigrant families in a way that no educational system has been able to do. And we still are.”

At the morning celebration, two graduating eighth-graders at Immaculate Conception School lent concrete proof to that. Xenia Martinez spoke about how in the primary grades at Immaculate Conception, studying and getting good grades made her more self-confident and her mother happy and proud. But when her family moved away and she went to a public school, she felt unsupported and completely on her own.

Xenia’s family moved back to Los Angeles and she returned to I.C.S. “Not only was I challenged in my education, but I was given the knowledge of prayer and the importance of study in my life,” she told the outdoor assembly of ACE staffers, guests, students and educators. “And my confidence came back and I’m deeply grateful.”

In his speech, Reuben del Rosal acknowledged he had grown personally, intellectually and spiritually during his nine years at the parochial school. “My experiences in Catholic education have been the best years of my life,” he said. “It’s very good to know that my mother is working so hard to pay for my education. She knows that there are great people here, and she knows the quality of education is the best.

“I believe that Immaculate Conception School has helped me grow in book-smarts and life-smarts,” said Reuban. “But I think the best feature in Catholic education is that you get to know God.”