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Keeping Faith

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Takoma Park, Md.

Anyone who labors under the impression that the post-baby-boom generation is full of apathetic, self-centered nihilists hasn't met the eight young people who inhabit a former convent in this Washington suburb.

These recent college graduates rise before dawn, teach school all day, and stay late to tutor algebra or to coach basketball.

On those same weekdays, or on Saturdays, the teachers become students themselves, taking graduate courses in preparation for a master's degree in education.

At the end of the day, the teachers return to this house--one of three such former convents in the Washington area--where they share bathrooms and shoulder household chores the way they did when they lived with mom and dad.

For all their sacrifices, these young people who could have done practically anything are paid practically nothing: a mere $7,500 annual stipend plus free tuition for their graduate studies.

The twentysomethings are all members of the Teacher Service Corps of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington. It is the archdiocese's attempt to deal with the double bind of a shortage of teachers, especially for inner-city schools, and the vise-tight school budgets of local parishes.

It's difficult to attract lay teachers to such demanding (and low-paying) jobs. And the aging and shrinking membership of religious orders nationwide has made it equally hard to fill the jobs with nuns and priests.

In some ways, the service corps--an idea born in 1986--anticipated Teach For America, the headline-grabbing national program that recruits graduates of selective colleges to teach in public schools facing teacher shortages. And like T.F.A., this program is designed to attract to teaching people who might not have gone into it otherwise. And then to keep them in the classroom.

Thus far, it seems to be working.

Of the 11 corps members who inaugurated the program in the fall of 1991, seven are still in teaching, says Sister Rose Mary Collins, the program's director. Of the seven, four are teaching in the archdiocese (which includes the District of Columbia and several suburban Maryland counties), and one is at another Catholic school, Sister Collins says.

Hooked on Service

This fall's class of 22 corps members is the program's fourth. Thirteen of the 16 who started last fall returned for a second year.

Not many people would commit to at least one year--and an expected two--of such an exacting program. But the archdiocese never lacks for applicants, usually drawing 150 to 200 each year for just 10 to 15 openings.

Some corps members say they join the program for the teaching experience, others for the service opportunity.

John McCaul, who at 28 is the senior member of the Takoma Park household, says he sought out a way to work with children after deciding something was missing from his career selling hats and mugs emblazoned with corporate logos.

Katie Krzyston, 25, got hooked on the notion of community service when she volunteered for Habitat for Humanity, a charity that builds and renovates homes for low-income people, while she was studying at the Catholic University of America in Washington. "It seems that once you get started, you just can't stop," says Krzyston, who now teaches kindergartners in a light-filled classroom at St. Michael's School in Silver Spring, Md.

Maura O'Hare, 23, majored in education at Villanova University in Philadelphia and was planning to be a teacher anyway. But when she looked at the difficulty inner-city Catholic schools have recruiting teachers, she thought "somebody needed to be there."

Each fall, Sister Collins and her assistant director, former corps member Jean M. Plummer, hope other promising college students will agree. The two make recruiting trips to the campuses of both Catholic and secular colleges all over the country. Word often goes out through career or service fairs or campus ministry offices, and it's the rare applicant who has not participated in some form of service during college, Sister Collins says.

Most applicants are from the East Coast or the Midwest, and some colleges, such as Villanova University, the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and Loyola College in Baltimore, repeatedly supply interested undergraduates.

Despite Sister Collins's continued efforts to recruit minority applicants, the corps is virtually all-white and middle-class. Most of the corps members work in inner-city schools where the students are largely lower-income and black.

The racial issue surfaced for some of the young teachers during their first year on the job, when parents told them they were uncomfortable with their children having a white teacher. But now, corps members say, they and their students turn their differences--in age and race--into humor and teachable moments. O'Hare, for instance, gave an impromptu lesson on the skin pigment melanin to students puzzling over her sunburn.

In evaluating applicants, Sister Collins and other reviewers look not for perfect college grades but for someone who has a gift for teaching and "who has faith, is dedicated, with a sense of responsibility, a sense of humor, and empathy."

Community Life

On a recent evening in the group home here, as the dishes are cleared after a homemade lasagna dinner and orange sherbet and cake are offered for dessert, the young teachers are bantering, joking, and teasing more amiably than most families.

A couple of them have been imported for the evening from another teacher-corps group house. All but one are second-year corps members who have gained enough confidence and distance from last year to laugh about how difficult it was.

The first year of teaching is a trial by fire for anyone, and many of the corps members are not education majors. So they spend the summer before they start teaching taking education courses at Trinity College in Washington (the program pays their tuition throughout their service) and observing classroom teachers.

But preparing for the specific course or grade level they'll be teaching can be fruitless. Last year, corps members say they did not know their assignments until a few days before they started.

But, they quickly add, there's almost nothing that can really prepare you for your first teaching job.

As Michael Knab, 23, puts it, the first year is "constant stress, constant exhaustion." Knab is in his second year of teaching at St. Michael's School. Earlier that day, he seemed firmly in command of his class of lively 7th graders during a lesson on Holy Land geography. He joked after class, however, that such confidence is something "you learn to fake really early."

First-year teaching was tough enough that several corps members seriously considered quitting.

Laurie Sessa, 23, says she "learned more last year than I learned in any year of my life." Her learning experience included friction with her principal and an overall lack of support. This year, she transferred to another school where she teaches the middle grades.

McCaul, who had been his own boss for some time, found it difficult to have "someone else being in charge of your life."

Living arrangements last year also produced their share of headaches. Some 10 teachers lived in a rented house about a 45-minute drive east of Washington. It meant cramped quarters: Four men, including McCaul, shared the lone basement bedroom.

The commute was a shock to some. McCaul said he had entered the program expecting to walk or take public transportation to work. Instead, he ended up driving himself and other corps members to work and class, eating up an hour and a half a day and landing him at home as late as 10:30 P.M. The commute and juggling of ride-sharing was unexpectedly time-consuming and meant repair bills for the car owners.

That was an expense McCaul would have liked to know about earlier, though he says he probably still would have joined the program.

Community living is without a doubt the best part of the program, Knab says.

"To have that kind of support when you come home," he says, "is really powerful and really good."

Although O'Hare sometimes wishes she could put dishes in the cupboard and find them right where she left them, Paul Smith, who is an only child, loves having other people around. "It's like having brothers and sisters," he says.

And as McCaul says, living with other first-year teachers reminds you that if you think you had a bad day, there's probably someone else who's had one at least as bad.

"At least it was good to come home and see 15 other people losing their minds," says McCaul, who says he's worked hard to figure out how to maintain classroom discipline with middle-schoolers at St. Anthony's Grade School in Washington. In class today, the energetic McCaul entertained his students with an array of jocular antics, but with a quick hand gesture brought an errant science student into line.

But the continuum between work and home means the housemates can get sick of talking about teaching. Occasionally, they will declare a moratorium on work-related topics.

Communal living also means abiding by house rules and taking your turn cleaning the bathroom or going grocery shopping. It can also mean forgoing what might otherwise be an active social life. Overnight guests of the romantic type are not allowed. And Sister Collins discourages dating among the corps members.

Although there is no way to govern amorous behavior outside the group house, corps members acknowledge that having a significant other doesn't necessarily fit into the busy, group-oriented schedule corps members keep.

Tough Financial Straits

The teachers' $500 a month in take-home pay presents a challenge to live simply and live without life's little luxuries, such as imported beer, English muffins, and Pop-Tarts. McCaul says he notices his relative poverty most "when my car breaks."

Financial straits often keeps the teachers dependent on parents. That can be "kind of a disappointment," says Ann Frick, 23, a 3rd-grade teacher, especially when "our parents put us through college." She relies on her parents to pay her car-insurance premiums.

Paying off undergraduate student loans is a bureaucratic nightmare for the corps members. Sister Collins works individually with the corps members to seek deferments for their loans. Some can win a deferral because they are part-time graduate students. Others have been able to do it through a federal community-service deferment, as long as they don't teach religion. That can be difficult for an elementary-grade teacher, who may have to teach religion along with all the other subjects.

One corps member's Perkins loan is being forgiven at 15 percent a year for each year she teaches in an impoverished, inner-city school.

Plummer, the assistant director, says next fall the program hopes to gain deferrals for corps members under a new "economic hardship" provision in student-loan regulations.

Interestingly, the corps members say the part-time graduate work they're doing is the least of their worries. Each takes six credit hours per semester, or about six hours of class a week. Trinity College faculty members are understanding and flexible, the corps members say, and recognize that their teaching duties always come first.

"If it comes in the way of getting your job done," Sessa says of classwork, "it just isn't going to get done."

Parish Savings

Parish school administrators speak as highly of the program as the corps members themselves.

Luray Greenwell is the principal at St. Anthony's in Northeast Washington and is boss to McCaul and two former Teacher Service Corps members. She praises their work and says she'd definitely use the program again. "They work very hard and are very eager and enthusiastic," she says.

And by employing a corps member, a parish school realizes a significant savings over hiring a regular lay teacher, she notes. The starting salary for a lay teacher in the parish is $17,555 this year. But even with the stipend, medical insurance, grad-school tuition, and administrative expenses, the parish pays out less than $15,000 for a corps member.

Rita Schwartz, an officer of the National Association of Catholic School Teachers, says the union has no problem with the corps as long as it lures teachers to stay in the archdiocese and does not take jobs from more experienced educators.

Greenwell acknowledges that at first, some parents at the 232-student K-8 school "felt their children were at a disadvantage" having a corps member as a teacher. But she calls that a natural reaction to any new, inexperienced teacher.

The service-corps idea has appealed to folks outside the archdiocese, too. Programs inspired by Washington's corps now operate in Chicago, the Philadelphia area, and at Notre Dame.

The interest of young people in teaching in Catholic schools, Sister Collins says, is "a sign of hope for our schools and for our church."

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