PACT collaboration helps schools to support students, make investments in needed improvements

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BRISTOL — There are a total of 16 students in Kayla McLaughlin’s third grade classroom — though only 15 of them wear the blue and white uniform of Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. That’s because after the school bell has rung and the youngsters in her care have been safely loaded onto their buses, McLaughlin packs her own backpack and drives from Bristol to Providence College, where she is only a few months away from receiving her master’s degree. She might be graduating just in the nick of time, however. “I think I’m starting to adopt the Rhode Island mindset,” the Boston native says with a laugh. “The thirty minute drive to Providence is beginning to feel like quite a haul.”

McLaughlin is enrolled in the Providence Alliance for Catholic Teachers (PACT), a Master of Education program which serves as the Friartown edition of a national trend in Catholic education. Together with 13 similar programs at Catholic colleges and universities throughout the country, PACT belongs to the University Consortium for Catholic Education (UCCE) — a community of graduate programs in education largely modeled after the University of Notre Dame’s Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE). These programs, most of them founded within the past 20 years, allow graduate students to earn an advanced degree while simultaneously teaching full time at a local Catholic school (although some programs, including ACE, include national placements). The students benefit by receiving extensive classroom training and guidance from more experienced colleagues; the schools benefit by gaining an intelligent, energetic young teacher at a cost which is either totally or partially defrayed by university stipends. The result is a symbiotic relationship which advocates hope could be a solution to the ongoing financial and staffing challenges which threaten diocesan schools across the nation.

“If these students are the future of Catholic schools, then our future has never looked brighter,” says Daniel Ferris, the superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Providence. Of the 16 schools throughout New England whose faculty currently includes a PACT student, six are located in Rhode Island: St. Raphael Academy, St. Pius V School, Bishop Hendricken High School, St. Rose of Lima School, Mount Saint Charles Academy and Our Lady of Mount Carmel School. Ferris hopes that the program will only continue to grow, and that the host schools will grow along with it.

According to Ferris, partnering with PACT has allowed many schools to support students and invest in necessary improvements with funds which would have otherwise gone to payroll and personnel costs. “We pay over $15,000 a head just to provide our teachers with health insurance,” explains Ferris. “But PACT students are either on their parents’ insurance plan or get their coverage through PC, so that alone saves our schools an enormous sum of money.”

Finding ways to reduce expenses without cutting programs or raising the price of tuition is critical if Rhode Island’s Catholic schools are to continue their mission of serving families and instructing students in the faith. The diocese currently administers 41 schools, down from last year’s figure of 42: the latest casualty of declining enrollment rates and increased operating costs was Westerly’s St. Pius X School, which celebrated its 55th (and final) graduation ceremony last June. Times have been especially tough for parochial schools in the Diocese of Providence — although the phrases “parochial school” and “Catholic school” are often used interchangeably, the former technically refers to schools administered by a specific parish.

These were once the mainstay of Catholic education in America, with nearly every town in Rhode Island boasting several — in some cities (such as Woonsocket), parish schools actually outnumbered their public counterparts by a substantial margin. By their very design, however, parochial schools primarily minister to children living within their immediate area rather than drawing in Catholic students from across the region. This makes the model extremely susceptible to downturns in the local economy, however, and periods of economic stagnation (such as the recent Great Recession) can prove deadly.

The shuttering of St. Pius might make it difficult for area families to share Ferris’s optimism about the “bright future” of Catholic education in our diocese. Nevertheless, the superintendent sees in programs like PACT a path forward for parochial schools at risk. “The feedback we’ve gotten from school administrators has been tremendous,” Ferris said. “Our relationship with Providence College is one of the strongest, most enduring partnerships we have, and we’re trying to find ways to expand upon it.”

Of course, supporting the “renewal and enrichment of Catholic schools in New England” is only half of PACT’s mission. The program also aims to synthesize the latest research in pedagogy and student development with the traditions of Catholic learning. The hope is that graduates will have the resources and training necessary to face the educational challenges of tomorrow without compromising the timeless teachings of the Church.

Dr. Michael O’Connor, the director of PACT, says that the unique structure of the two-year program places equal emphasis on both theory and practice. “It’s more than just hypothetical exercises,” O’Connor says. “We try to focus on building up the student as a whole person. Being immersed in the mission and culture of Catholic schools not only helps our students develop academically, it also helps them to grow spiritually and discover their own vocation as educators.”

In order to facilitate that development, students in the program live together in small groups, typically numbering four or five. According to O’Connor, these “intentional Christian communities” are a significant part of what distinguishes M.Ed. programs like PACT and ACE from similar teacher education programs. “It’s not just a group of people brought together by random chance,” he says. “Our students are connected by a shared vision and purpose. By living together, learning together, teaching together, and praying together, they help one another discern their vocational call to teach.”

O’Connor’s sentiments are shared by Mary Armstrong, a second grade teacher in her first year of the PACT program. She and McLaughlin not only teach together at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and study together at Providence College, the young women also share a residence with other PACT students in Bristol. Armstrong, a Washingtonian by birth, says that the sense of fellowship she shares with her PACT roommates has helped her transition smoothly to the demands of a rigorous academic program so far from her home. “It’s great to always have the support of the other girls,” she says. “We study together and share ideas for lesson plans with one another, and working together helps us maintain a sense of humility and remember that we’re all still learning.”

It might be a challenge, however, for PACT students to maintain that sense of humility when discussing their career prospects after graduation — the program’s placement record is certainly something worth bragging about. The ACE model introduced by Notre Dame has proven extremely successful at each of the universities in the UCCE, but PACT stands out even among such illustrious peers. Since being founded in 2001, the program has maintained a perfect 100 percent employment rate for students seeking to become teachers. Although some graduates choose to work in public schools (and a few leave the field of education altogether), O’Connor is proud to say that the majority of PACT graduates continue to work in Catholic education. “In fact, a third of our Class of 2018 remained employed at the very same school which they had been originally assigned to by PACT,” O’Connor relates. “It’s a beautiful thing to see our students becoming the new teachers and school administrators of Catholic education.”

One PACT alumna who has served as both a teacher and a school administrator is Jessica Walters, the current principal at Our Lady of Mount Carmel. Walters is only too aware of the dangers Catholic schools face because of declining enrollment rates and increased financial strain: the school to which she had been assigned as a PACT student (St. Francis of Assisi in Warwick) was one of five diocesan schools forced to close its doors in 2009, at the height of the recession. Despite this, her time as a PACT student and as the principal of a school employing two PACT teachers has convinced Walters that the program can train teachers to meet the changing demands of the modern classroom. “Because the PACT program puts so much emphasis on continuing professional development, it produces teachers who want to keep learning and improving their skills,” said Walters, noting that schools need educators with this mentality in order to adapt and grow.

Helping Catholic educators learn to adapt has been a major objective for Dr. O’Connor since he became the leader of the PACT program in July 2018. “It’s very important that we focus on inclusion,” says O’Connor. “For instance, the Latino community is one of the fastest growing parts of our local Church, so we really need teachers who have been trained to approach having a bilingual student in their classroom as an educational gift and an asset rather than as a challenge that needs to conform.” Another group that contemporary Catholic educators must be prepared to engage with is students with special needs. According to O’Connor, what sets Catholic schools apart from other institutions is that they recognize “the beauty and humanity that every student has as a child of God. By implementing strategies for teaching students with special needs, we can make sure that our schools remain welcoming to all children.”

Ultimately, it is still too early to predict what role the parochial school will play in the future of Catholic education in America, or to what extent that future will be determined by programs like PACT. What is abundantly clear, however, is that these talented young Friars are making a lasting difference in the lives of students throughout the entire diocese, planting seeds that will bear fruit no matter what else the future might have in store. As Superintendent Ferris describes it, “one part of the PACT program that I find appropriate is that the students live together in little faith communities of their own. Because that’s what every Catholic school is, really: a little community of faith.” For the little community at Our Lady of Mount Carmel — and all of the other schools partnered with the program — the student educators of PACT have made keeping faith in the future just a bit easier.