Sacred Heart Catholic School in Pinellas Park is in a partnership with the University of Notre Dame in the initial expansion of a pilot program designed to improve Catholic schools nationwide.
PINELLAS PARK – Beginning this year, Sacred Heart Catholic School in Pinellas Park joined a partnership with the University of Notre Dame in the initial expansion of a pilot program designed to improve Catholic schools nationwide.
The school is now an Alliance for Catholic Education, or ACE, Academy, meaning the university will work closely with Sacred Heart teachers and administration to strengthen the school’s curriculum and outreach to the community.
“The idea is to provide comprehensive support to schools that serve at-risk kids and low-income communities,” said Christian Dallavis, ACE Academies director at Notre Dame.
The pilot program is an expansion of the service the university already provides. For almost 20 years, the Alliance for Catholic Education has prepared mostly recent college graduates to teach in under-resourced Catholic schools in 30 different cities around the country, Dallavis explained. For about 15 years, Sacred Heart has benefited from teachers who train at Notre Dame, travel to Tampa Bay and then teach at schools within Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. In fact, the teachers who serve live in houses that are within walking distance of Sacred Heart, Dallavis said.
The university started the ACE Academies programs at three schools in Tucson, Ariz., two years ago.
“They’ve had really good results in Tucson,” said Cristina Espino, ACE Academies achievement director and liaison for the university in Tampa Bay. “They’re improving student performance and leveraging their tax credit scholarships.”
Along with increasing enrolment through state scholarships, the university secures national grants to overhaul the curriculum for the schools and literacy grants from national foundations to provide books and other critical needs, Espino said.
Now it will do the same with Sacred Heart and St. Joseph Catholic School in Tampa.
Dallavis said the university was looking at a pair or cluster of schools “that have unique promise and potential for strengthening the quality of schooling available to families who need it the most.” The ACE program also hopes to fill empty seats at Sacred Heart, which currently has 167 students registered for the 2012 school year, Espino said.
“The school could easily, comfortably be at 200, 220 kids and still have a very appealing student-to-teacher ratio,” Dallavis said. “We would really like to see the school get a greater enrollment so it’s sustainable in the long run.”
Dallavis explained that part of Espino’s role will be spreading the word about Sacred Heart and recruiting families to the school.
“One thing that Catholic schools have never been particularly good at is marketing and recruiting. Historically, they haven’t had to do much of that. But it’s a different universe, and we need to do a better job at telling our story,” he said.
The school is able to utilize Florida tax credit scholarships available through Step Up For Students to help low-income students attend the private school. ACE Academies are designed to help children prepare for college, and the university is partnered with schools that teach prekindergarten through eighth grade by design, Dallavis said
“One of the challenges that we find is that kids, especially kids from low income families, by the time they get to high school, they’re often so far behind that’s really hard for the high school to get them prepared for college,” he said. “We say that our two goals for the kids that we serve are college and heaven.”
The university will work with the Sacred Heart teachers to offer resources, instructional materials and professional development to strengthen the curriculum the school offers.
“We really want to focus on individual student growth … using resources that allow us to tell where students are exactly and really meet them where they are,” Dallavis said.
Andy Shannon has been principal at Sacred Heart for the last five years and graduated from the Notre Dame school leadership preparation graduate program.
“The biggest thing is that teachers will start to use a lot of data in their instruction,” he said.
Dallavis said the university hopes to add more ACE Academies.
“We don’t want to grow too fast, because we want to make sure we can give the schools that we work with the attention that we think they need,” he said. “Over time, we hope that this becomes a national network of schools.”