Elias Moo could be parlaying the University of Notre Dame degree he earned in 2007 into a lucrative career. Instead, the 24-year-old has spent the last two years living in Denver's inner city with four others who share his passion: serving as a teacher, spiritual guide, and role model for children in Catholic schools.
Moo (pronounced moe) taught fifth grade at St. Rose of Lima Catholic School, where nearly all of the students are Hispanic, predominantly from low-income families. He was paid a $1,000 monthly stipend, but he doubts he could have felt more fulfilled.
He speaks proudly of how his father, who worked his way up from a 17-year-old field laborer in Oxnard, California to his current position as quality control manager at San Miguel Produce, made sure that Elias and his four younger siblings attended Catholic schools. Elias pieced together just enough scholarships, grants, and loans to make his way through Notre Dame.
"I am a product of Catholic schools," Moo says. "Both of my parents are immigrants from Mexico and they've been working their whole lives for us to have a Catholic education. I feel a special connection to that. I feel like I'm giving back and being a part of giving these kids a sense of hope.., kids who struggle socially, economically, emotionally."
Moo is hardly alone in his idealism and eagerness to serve, and the nation's financially strapped Catholic schools are happy to oblige. He is one of a growing number of young adults who, lacking traditional education degrees or licenses, largely donate two years of their time to teach in hard-to-staff Catholic schools while taking courses at night or over the summer to become certified teachers.
More public schools in underserved urban and rural areas also are tapping this resource. The movement of volunteer teachers in Catholic schools mirrors Teach for America, which will place 4,100 new teachers this fall in public schools in low-income communities across the country.
It would be wrong to characterize Catholic schools' demand for young teachers as strictly financial, says Karen Ristau, president of the National Catholic Educational Association. Service teachers, she acknowledges, "are a wonderful supplement that have become essential in many poor schools."
Diocesan leaders and school administrators have long since stopped mourning the bygone era of sisters staffing schools. The future of Catholic schools, they realize, lies in attracting and hanging on to young, talented lay teachers.
It's a battle not without its challenges. Inexperienced teachers must learn on the job. Those who stay on for a few years often find it difficult to live on the relatively low pay. Turnover in many urban Catholic schools is high.
But many school and university officials, and the service teachers themselves, say they believe the grand experiment is largely succeeding.
Shane Martin, dean of the school of education at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, said the university's service teacher program, Partners in Los Angeles Catholic Education (PLACE), has made a huge impact on area schools. Its 50 graduate-level service teachers live together in former convents while they teach.
"I think we have a very important obligation to help Catholic schools any way we can," Martin says. "For me what's most exciting about it is it's the full package--spirituality, academics, and living in community."
Martin credits Notre Dame's Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program, the nation's first and largest Catholic service teacher program--and the one that placed Moo at St. Rose of Lima--with pioneering the concept.
Father Tim Scully, C.S.C., now executive vice-president of Notre Dame, and Father Sean McGraw, C.S.C., then a former student of Scully's, founded ACE in 1993 to help staff schools in dire need of teachers, especially in the South and Southwest. …