When asked what it was like being a PLACE Corps’ first-year teacher in 2010-2011, Marian Quiroz sighs. “Long. It was very tiring,” says the 23-year-old from Orange County. She is talking about Partners in Los Angeles Catholic Education — Loyola Marymount University’s demanding two-year program that recruits college graduates from across the United States to teach in struggling, mostly inner-city Catholic elementary and high schools in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

At the same time, “PLACERS,” who live together in small communities, are taking summer and evening courses at LMU, earning a combined teaching credential and Master of Arts degree in education. A challenging schedule indeed for anyone, including Marian Quiroz.

Then, all of a sudden, a smile comes across her face.

“But it kind of went by really fast,” she continues. “And even though I swore I would never teach junior high, that’s what I wound up doing. But it actually worked out really well, and I really loved it at St. Agnes. I had an incredibly supportive staff who just really helped me with my lessons and everything. I couldn’t be at a better school. And I’m really happy teaching junior high.”

That doesn’t mean Quiroz, who graduated from Chapman University in Orange, has forgotten trying to juggle making out lesson plans, grading social studies tests and correcting English papers, while taking evening classes at LMU and preparing for classroom observations.

“It was rough,” she reports, “but we all had to do it. There’s something about PLACERS. There’s just this resilience, and you keep going.”

Living in community with eight other young women helped a lot. There were community dinners every Thursday as well as plenty of opportunities to share bad days and bounce classroom ideas around. They also celebrated Mass as a group and went on retreats together.

“I love being in a Catholic school,” Quiroz says. “I like that it’s small. I like that you can talk about faith and religion. And especially teaching junior high, you can have a lot of really good conversations with kids about these subjects, which you can’t touch in a public school. There’s just this community of faith in a Catholic school.

“I wish I could rewind and start fresh with the class,” she adds. “I wish I could start over knowing what I know now and, definitely, I would change how I managed the classroom. And I’m excited about starting this new school year and to really understand what I can be expecting. I do want to continue teaching, but I don’t know what will happen after I graduate from PLACE. But I could stay at St. Agnes forever.”

‘Incredible enthusiasm’

Diana Murphy, the director of PLACE who helped develop the nationally recognized Catholic teacher corps in 2000, says, “We were ready to pop champagne back then because people actually applied to the program. And the last cohort, which was our 10th, we had 84 applications. And the quality of applications is just awesome; the selection process is arduous. We have 28 in our new group and 23 returning for their second year.”

At first most of the PLACERS came from Loyola Marymount University itself and the rest from California. Today, about half of the 204 graduates and 51 currently in the program hail from 81 different universities in nearly 30 states. Some eight out of 10 have stayed teaching in Catholic schools, with many returned to their hometowns to work. But usually about 75 percent stay to teach a third year in their local Catholic school PLACE assignments, with many staying even longer. One PLACER, who started in 2002, is, in fact, coming back for her 10th year as an elementary teacher at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Downey.

And this school year members of the PLACE Corps are currently plying their craft in 27 different Catholic elementary and secondary schools in the archdiocese, ranging from Bishop Conaty-Our Lady of Loretto and Bishop Mora Salesian High Schools in Los Angeles to Maria Regina (Gardena), Saints Peter & Paul (Wilmington) and St. John Chysostom (Inglewood) Elementary Schools.

In its 11th year, PLACE features three pillars: excellence in academics, commitment to service and faith-centered community living. An intense summer boot camp on LMU’s Westchester campus prepares students to be teachers through afternoon classes and morning observations in local public schools. Evening spiritual activities and community building flesh out the summer program. Then mentors at their assigned schools and evening classes at LMU continue their teaching education.

In its 10-year history, only nine students have washed out of the two-year program. An unintended consequence has been vocations after their PLACE experience. Six have committed to religious life, with one — Father Michael Yadao Perucho — being ordained last June for the L.A. Archdiocese.

What PLACERS have meant to local under-resourced Catholic schools has been immeasurable, according to Murphy.

“I think they’re coming into these schools with this incredible enthusiasm and a big appreciation for Catholic education,” she points out. “They worked hard to get to this point, so they’re not quitters. And they come with this vibrancy, this commitment, with technology expertise and equipment because they’re all young. And they come with a network. They help each other out with curriculum ideas, classroom management and many other educational matters. And a ‘can-do’ attitude.

“And so what happens in their schools is very often the principals look to them to take on additional responsibilities: coach, athletic director, counselors, technology coordinators and many extra-curricular activities. Being the people they are, they don’t say no as often as they should. And these are brand new teachers in areas of responsibility that you would not ordinarily put them in. So they bring energy to their schools.”

Then there’s the whole issue of what PLACERS bring in terms of reinforcing a school’s Catholic identity. Diana Murphy points out that the PLACE Corps over the years has had Jewish students, Seventh-Day Adventist and Protestant students. But she says all have “come on board” supporting Catholic education.

“Our goal is that they do help maintain and improve the Catholic identity of the school,” she says. “Coming from a Catholic program, we have high expectations about this, and we hold them to a higher standard as does their principal.

“But it’s not just ‘Catholic’ in terms of doctrine and knowing the sacraments and all the rest of that. It should be how you live your life. We expect the PLACERS to live their life as Catholic role models all the time. Hopefully, they’re so comfortable with their Catholic faith that it just permeates what they do and their students can see it.”

Role model

Ted Dunlap, a member of PLACE Corps’ 2006 cohort who is currently the athletic director of Junipero Serra High School in Gardena, sees himself as a role model.

“A lot of our students at Serra — but I think this is true of inner-city Los Angeles — they might be going to a Catholic school, but they’re not necessarily practicing Catholics, or even Catholic,” he notes. “So when they see a young adult, which most PLACERS are, practicing their faith, attending daily Mass, going to Confession, it’s amazing what that experience can set for these kids.

“And it goes beyond ‘Let’s go to church every month at school.’ That’s important. But when you see young adults that aren’t that much older than you, I think that can really be a role-model type of relationship.”

The 27-year-old Dallas native started out teaching math at Serra. He calls his first year in the program and teaching high school kids a “crazy ride.”

“It was rapid fire,” Dunlap explains. “I mean, you kind of had to learn on the go. I definitely was not the good teacher that first year teaching algebra. But the six weeks in the summer were great. Most new teachers don’t get that. And Diana was great, always checking in making sure everything was going OK. So you stuck through it and you got help through it, and it ended up to be really rewarding.

“I’d do it over in a heartbeat,” he stresses. “It’s been awesome. I’ve gained personally and professionally. And the only way I feel OK with balancing that out is I think about the kids that we’ve helped. And that’s why I signed up with PLACE.”