National Catholic Reporter
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Catholic Education
Issue Date:  March 26, 2004

From left, Aimee Vogt and Katie Coyle with David Jacob and Nikki Moorman at a retreat for Lalanne program participants last year.
Program puts teachers in inner-city schools

Participants work toward master's degree, bolster Catholic educational presence


Inner-city landscapes are as predictable as suburban strip malls. Instead of Home Depot and Borders, there’s the used car lot and the pawnshop. Instead of a Starbucks on every block, a liquor store.

For teachers at inner-city schools, salaries are poor to dismal. But it is faith, not money that is drawing a small but growing number of aspiring K-12 teachers to Catholic schools in five Midwestern cities.

Through the University of Dayton’s Lalanne program -- a teacher training program run by the University’s Center for Catholic Education -- dozens of recent college graduates have been placed at schools in Cleveland, Dayton, Toledo, Detroit and Indianapolis.

The program, named for 18th-century Society of Mary priest Jean Baptiste Lalanne, started five years ago with just six teachers in Dayton. Today there are 25 teachers serving five cities.

In each city a handful of Lalanne teachers live together for the duration of the program’s two years. During summer breaks, they work toward their master’s degrees at the University of Dayton.

“We are committed to keeping a Catholic presence in the inner-city in terms of education,” said Jacinta Mergler, the program’s coordinator for teacher activity. “Inner-city schools are hurting for good teachers. This program speaks to that.”

Lalanne teachers, Mergler said, “see their teaching as a ministry -- an extension of their faith.”

Br. Edward Brink

The program partners with school principals and diocesan leaders to create what Lalanne director Br. Edward Brink calls “layers of support” for program participants.

The diocese finds the teachers a place to live on diocesan property and charges the program minimal rent. A diocesan liaison is appointed to help the teachers with everything from setting up bank accounts to group prayer. School principals are asked to select mentors for the young teachers. And the two full-time Lalanne staffers organize retreats for the teachers and offer long-distance support.

“We make ourselves available,” said Mergler. “A lot of e-mails go back and forth. We talk about problems with classroom management or basic first-year jitters, that kind of thing.”

It is a communal infrastructure Brink would like to see the teachers carry with them to their classrooms.

“Our hope,” said Brink, “is to see the teachers modeling a sense of community in the classroom.”

In Aimee Vogt’s sixth grade classroom at St. Michael’s Middle School in Indianapolis, Brink’s hope has taken flight.

Vogt, 24, is slogging through verb quirks. To demonstrate the difference between linking and action verbs, she has printed out 22 sentences for 22 students.

“Mike watches TV on a three-inch screen,” reads one. “Katie does not keep her room clean,” reads another. Each sentence uses the name of a child in the room and a fact about that child’s life, revealing a teacher’s intimacy with her students.

That intimacy transcends grammatical law. Faith is an essential aspect of the Lalanne program, and Vogt wants her students to think about God.

“I don’t teach religion, so I can’t do it in a religion class,” Vogt said. “I do it through journaling.”

Her students are asked to put pen to paper and answer big questions like, “What does the kingdom of God mean to you?” or, “What kind of role does God play in your life?”

“They like to think about it,” Vogt said. “I can see that they sit and they reflect. And through reading their journal entries, I can tell that they are actually thinking. Maybe it’s not always the way I want them to see it, but they’re thinking about it and they are trying to grow spiritually.”

Community and spirituality are the program’s life force. Vogt lives in a former convent in Indianapolis with six other Lalanne teachers. The community shares meals and meets for prayer once a week.

But eating and praying won’t get a teacher through her first two years on the job.

“Everybody knows that your first year of teaching is extremely tiring and taxing,” said Katie Coyle, 23, another Lalanne teacher at St. Michael’s. “It’s nice coming home to people who understand what you are going through and can relate.

Coyle, who teaches English literature and social studies, said the community aspect of the program perplexed her mostly older coworkers at first. “They had interesting questions,” Coyle said. “At first when they found out that there were guys and girls living together they were like, whoa.” Other people asked if she was a nun.

After two years with the Lalanne teachers, St. Michael’s veterans are envious. “One of my coworkers has been teaching here for 37 years. He wishes something like this was around when he started.”

The program’s unique support structure is showing results. Of the teachers who have completed the program, 70 percent remain in their Lalanne schools. “It’s a nice successful number,” Brink said. “We’d like to see more.”

So would St. Michael’s principal, Steve Padgett. He had concerns early on. Though both Vogt and Coyle were licensed in middle childhood education -- a rare find for Padgett -- there was the question of whether the young Lalanne teachers would fit in with a faculty much more experienced and older.

“But once I got them here,” Padgett said, he was won over by “their personality, their enthusiasm and their expertise.”

Brink, a former principal himself, understands Padgett’s hesitation. “It’s a tough job,” Brink said. “But once principals have one of our teachers, they want another. It’s a pretty consistent thing.”

Lalanne keeps the teachers keep coming -- no small fortune for schools swallowed up by a moribund inner-city landscape.

“These teachers have choices,” Brink said, “They could be going someplace else but they’re here with us and we’re excited.”

Jeff Guntzel is a freelance writer living in Indianapolis.

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 2004

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